Biosphere 2


100 points | by ndsipa_pomu 395 days ago


  • handsclean 395 days ago
    I visited this and thought it was very cool. A few random comments:

    - It’s underlaid by a dense sprawl of machinery the size of a football field, which is constantly working to create and maintain the above biomes.

    - The “lungs” are auditorium-sized rooms with a ceiling that’s free to rise and fall as air pressure changes due to temperature, reducing stress on the structure. You can walk up inside it, with air rushing past you in the connecting tunnel.

    - There’s a library at the top of a short tower, maybe two stories. We were told the crew didn’t use it because food and oxygen deprivation kept them too weak to climb the stairs.

    - Golf cart sized air vents create what really gets subconsciously recognized as natural wind, not artificial blowing. It was so pleasant that I’ve become determined to replicate it in my home someday.

    - There wasn’t a predecessor, “biosphere 1” refers to Earth.

    • wongarsu 395 days ago
      > Golf cart sized air vents create what really gets subconsciously recognized as natural wind, not artificial blowing. It was so pleasant that I’ve become determined to replicate it in my home someday.

      Maybe a ceiling fan is a good starting point. A 4 foot fan at low speeds generates something approximating wind, and in principle you can mount it on a wall instead of a ceiling to get a more natural wind direction. At higher speed you'd probably have to mount it in front of an opening of similar size as the blades to get wind instead of turbulent vortices though.

    • Grimburger 395 days ago
      > We were told the crew didn’t use it because food and oxygen deprivation kept them too weak to climb the stairs.

      Perhaps only in the first experiment?

      > The second closure experiment achieved total food sufficiency and did not require injection of oxygen.

    • AtlasBarfed 394 days ago
      I wonder what solar cells were used in the project, and if modern advancements in solar power would change how systems were engineered. Battery technologies have improved as well.

      I think this is a critical experiment, and there shouldn't be one. There is a nonzero chance, increasing every day, that these technologies will be needed ON EARTH from collapsing ecosystems and extinction-depleted biological interaction graphs.

    • dehrmann 395 days ago
      > food and oxygen deprivation kept them too weak to climb the stairs

      Clearly that means it's time to declare the experiment over, right?

    • TheBlight 395 days ago
      It also feels very 1980s inside.
  • simonw 395 days ago
    It's so weird that Steve Bannon (yes, that Steve Bannon) was brought on to manage this project for two years from 1994 to 1996.
    • KennyBlanken 395 days ago
      Environmental and green-related projects have a history of purposeful sabotage by business/industry.

      See: NiMH battery patent encumbrances.

      More recently, trade objections by the tiny US solar manufacturing industry causing solar panel imports to dramatically slow while everyone waits to see what the feds think about foreign solar panels not meeting trade regs.

      • jackmott42 395 days ago
        People downvoting this may not be aware that Bannon was absolutely a nutcase and caused constant shitstorms on this project.
    • mdonahoe 395 days ago
      Yeah I remember watching the documentary about the history of the group that created Biosphere2, and I had my mind blown when Bannon showed up at the end.
  • FiddlerClamp 395 days ago
    After seeing Biosphere 2 we went to see Arcosanti, about 3 hours away:

    Arcosanti is/was a planned experimental town with a similar 'out of this world' vibe, but a very different approach.

  • medler 395 days ago
    Key to understanding the whole thing is this: “the group that built, conceived, and directs the Biosphere project is not a group of high-tech researchers on the cutting edge of science but a clique of recycled theater performers that evolved out of an authoritarian—and decidedly non-scientific—personality cult”
    • oceanplexian 395 days ago
      I’ve been there 3 or 4 times. Yeah, it has a storied history but it’s an incredibly inspiring place.

      They more or less built a tropical jungle in the the desert (Along with several other biomes, but the jungle is the most incredible). Over the decades it’s become overgrown and all the trees completely fill the dome to the ceiling, there are waterfalls annd rivers and all kinds of life in there, the humidity and everything is exactly like a real jungle; it’s borderline science fiction. Maybe science needs a few more artists because if we want to live on other planets without going insane it won’t be in sterile space capsules, it’ll look like Biosphere.

    • wglass 394 days ago
      When this was being built it was a big tourist attraction. I visited the Biosphere a couple of times that first year and I went to the ceremony for the reopen.

      Strange project. There was clearly some valid science and engineering that came out of it, but lots of vanity, hype and backlash. The effort was founded by a billionaire who was either a visionary or a member of a personality-cult, or both, depending on your perspective. The biosphere residents - the biospherians - were lionized in the local press, similar to astronauts.

      When they opened it up after the first year, the biospherians strode out in jumpsuits and lined up on stage. Lot of speechs by people in the project and unrelated luminaries.

      My favorite memory is a great but somewhat random speech by Jane Goodall. (paraphrasing) "I know this experiment isn't supposed to be about the interpersonal dynamics of a small group in a confined space, but we should use this experience to think about other intelligent animals in confined spaces for long periods of time... like chimpanzees".

      • hotpotamus 393 days ago
        Well, when you're a hammer everything looks like a nail, so I suppose when you're a primate researcher, everything looks like a primate. Probably helps that we are actually primates.
  • mjmsmith 395 days ago
    If you're going to Tucson, Biosphere 2 (30 miles north) and the Titan Missile Museum (30 miles south) make a good day trip.
    • kkylin 395 days ago
      For the space / aviation nerds on the list, I think the Pima Air & Space Museum is also worth a stop, as is the Mirror Lab tour on the University of Arizona campus. (Alas, Davis-Monthan AFB no longer offers the Boneyard Tour.)
  • ndsipa_pomu 395 days ago
    There's a documentary about the experiment called Spaceship Earth (2020)

    • ok_dad 395 days ago
      Also, Bio-Dome (1996). A favorite of mine.
      • ndsipa_pomu 394 days ago
        Having just obtained a copy of that, I have my doubts about it being a documentary
        • ok_dad 394 days ago
          Hehe, my little bit of humor in a dark HN hole.
  • ughitsaaron 395 days ago
    George: All right, no more lies. Elaine has been chosen to represent the Upper West Side in the next Biosphere project.

    Vivian: I haven't heard anything about another Biosphere.

    George: That's because it's underwater.

    Vivian: This is insane.

    George: Is it?

    Vivian: Yes it it.

    George: Well, it's all for charity, so what's the difference.

  • ggm 395 days ago
    As a youngish adult across the period of the first experiment I remember being simultaneously excited and also somewhat disgusted by the project. It had "vanity science" writ large across it. Subsequent events didn't make me change my mind.

    The Wikipedia article tries pretty hard to stick to neutral POV and I think does OK. It might undersell the "fraudulent science" aspect a little and oversell the "we meant well" but what it did teach me is that good science was done. I didn't realise how much value came out of it, around things like elevated CO2 and reef effects. I do suspect other kinds of experiment could have done that, but it's nice they at least achieved that. I'm glad the uni invested to turn it into a research facility albeit of a slightly different kind.

    Some of the psychodrama is pretty torrid. People busting windows, mistaken belief of obligations to science, to their fellow scientists, to the project, to the truth. Bannon for goodness sake!! When they opened the airlocks for some convenience "we ran out of ramen and batteries" it became junky science fast. Why didn't they have some process around full disclosure for goodness sake? It sounds like nothing a decent airlock and double entry accounting on mass, gas, and energy can't deal with.

    I am left suspecting double the size, quadruple the budget and with post biosphere#2 knowledge, massively more powerful batteries, PV, knowledge of materials science for things like outgassing, human and animal physiology, improvements in glass transmissiblity, you name it.. maybe third times the charm. That budget would have to be x10 for current costs, so scaled to 2023 dollars.

    Finding people capable of engaging and remaining normies under scrutiny is eternally hard. Trueman show stuff. We're learning Antarctic base social dynamics have gone pretty shit in the last two decades, systemic bullying culture can become pervasive without a lot of checks. (According to some Australian media and administrative reviews)

    • wglass 394 days ago
      I always thought the insistence on 100% adherence to the sealed airlock was a bit of vanity. When they had to take one of the residents out for surgery, and sent them back in with some food and supplies, the press treated it like a betrayal.

      But science isn't an all-or-nothing effort. It was only a big deal because the PR machine insisted there was absolute isolation. Needing to adjust the experiment slightly midway through doesn't invalidate the effort or the insights that came out of it.

  • dimal 395 days ago
    In college in the 90s, I lived in a run down, shitty house with four other freaks. We did drugs, made weird music, had great parties and jokingly called our house Biosphere 3. Some of us even got brightly colored jumpsuits. It was like living in a cult of the hilarious. Good times.
  • singularity2001 395 days ago
    All this talk about bases on moon or mars is idle until we have a (almost) completely autonomous prototype of biosphere-x working on earth. I would love to see that being built by Musk &co.
    • sampo 394 days ago
      You have to give some credit to Biosphere 2 for being the most ambitious, most advanced project in the field. But it was also embarrassingly hobbyist.

      They brought in way too much soil, so soil respiration consumed too much of their oxygen. And they didn't know the basic chemistry of building materials. Soils respired in oxygen and released it as CO2, and the CO2 went into the concrete walls of the buildings, as the buildings were new and the concrete was still curing.

      As a result, they knew they kept losing oxygen, but because there was no corresponding rise in the air CO2 concentration, they didn't know where their oxygen was disappearing.

      They brought in farm animals, and quickly found out they can't support them. They brought in too little plants, and later found out they need to start growing fast growing, easy to grow plants on almost all available soil areas, in an attempt to produce more oxygen.

      It's a bit difficult to say, were these elementary mistakes because they didn't have understanding of the mass flows in the biogeochemical cycles in their ecosystem. Or was this pioneering scientific work, because nobody had such understanding at a time, and they were just in the process of finding out.

      In 1970s, Russians did smaller and shorter experiments, with 1 to 3 man crews. They started by calculating, how much Chlorella algae and/or how much wheat you need to grow in order to produce enough oxygen for the people. They didn't have an expensive patchwork of copies of different types of ecosystems. They just had closed room with algae growing in tanks, and a small wheat field in a room under artificial lights.

    • mcculley 394 days ago
      China got to 370 days total, but my reading of the articles about it is that the most a single group endured was 200 days.

  • NickHoff 395 days ago
    I've read about this. Studying the psychology of group dynamics and conflict in a confined environment was a part of the experiment. Sure enough, the crew of 8 quickly split into two factions. It still seems like a success to me though, because even though some of them were barely on speaking terms despite being friends before, they continued to work together.

    > I don't like some of them, but we were a hell of a team. That was the nature of the factionalism... but despite that, we ran the damn thing and we cooperated totally.

  • lalo2302 395 days ago
    It is open for tourism. Is an amazing thing to see.
    • hotpotamus 395 days ago
      Came here to add that. I saw it as kind of a joke (and there is a Star Trekky 90's techno-optimism to the whole thing that I miss now) due to the Pauly Shore parody of it, and so I went on a whim when I was in town. It's actually an impressive work of engineering in its way, and used to study ecosystems to this day although it is no longer sealed. I'd recommend a visit to anyone.
      • sacnoradhq 395 days ago
        It only needed to be, what, 30-50x bigger to be sustainable?
  • saalweachter 395 days ago
    Skimming the article, it looks like they had 8 people and 0.6 acres of agricultural space.

    Planted entirely in potatoes, that could grow 3800 calories per person per day [over the course of a year]. Given that is probably wasn't entirely potatoes, I'm wondering what sort of margin they had on their calorie production.

    • rippercushions 395 days ago
      Per the article, the margin was negative, they could only produce 86% of dietary needs.
      • saalweachter 393 days ago
        Yes, but was that a totally inadequate plan performing as expected, or a plan with too small of a margin falling well below said margin?
    • pantalaimon 394 days ago
      You need more than potatoes for a sustainable diet, let alone an ecosystem.
  • sillywalk 395 days ago
    I read this article in Pauly Shore's voice.
    • sacnoradhq 395 days ago
      I imagined they found Encino Man while they were running out of oxygen and Pauly Shore was making squirrel noises.
  • isaacharper 395 days ago
    The first biosphere is earth
  • dbg31415 395 days ago
    “Just cause we’re stuck in a bubble doesn’t mean we can’t cause any trouble.”