EIGHT ``biospherians'' emerged from their glass cocoon in the Arizona desert this week to blink at the world and to have the world blink at them. They had spent two years in a three-acre glass terrarium designed to be self-sufficient and to simulate a mini-earth.
Wearing Star Trek-like suits, the four men and four women proclaimed their stay in the bubble ``a key to the future of the planet.'' Some scientists wonder what planet they have been on. Almost from the start, the experiment has reflected the tension between utopian ideals and the verisimilitude of serious science.
The goals of the $150 million project, financed by Texas billionaire Edward Bass, were worthy enough: to provide a deeper understanding of earth ecology and the feasibility of establishing colonies in space. The participants were sealed in a glass jar that was supposed to be self-supporting. They breathed recycled air, drank recycled water, and grew their own food in an artificial environment that included a miniature ocean, rain forest, savanna, marsh, and desert.
As it turned out, though, the planet-in-a-bottle wasn't completely self-supporting. Oxygen was pumped in when breathing got difficult. One ``crew member'' who left the enclosure for medical treatment returned with chemical supplies and other items.
No one can be faulted for cutting corners to ensure survival. But organizers were bizarrely secretive about the breaches and paraded the endeavor as pure science when it wasn't. Indeed, many reputable researchers considered the methods used more worthy of Disneyland than Darwin - an image not helped by organizers' promotion of the site as a tourist attraction.
No doubt some lessons will come out of the effort. It did set a record for people living in a closed system. The experiments with more than 1,000 species of insects and animals in an artificial environment should yield some insights.
Yet, in the end, the project probably produced more sociology than science - it showed how, after two years in a bottle, eight people could emerge still talking to each other.