Book Review: The Human Experiment

The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes Inside Biosphere 2 by Jane Poynter is a story about how she struggled to survive in Biosphere 2 together with seven other people. It’s a story of never-ending hunger, extremely low oxygen levels, and conflicts between the crew members. It’s a story where “the work ethic and discipline were extremely strong”, but also where the there was a “tight structure and leadership that was at times authoritarian” (p. 18). The leader, John Allen, kept all fired up, but he was also “extremely domineering, with a vile temper that would flare unannounced” (p. 80). He could be “mean and humiliating, but he was also funny and inspiring” (p. 103). The “vision was so strong, the intent so palpable” that “everyone wanted to … be involved” (p. 93). At its most frenetic “almost four hundred people” (p. 65) worked together, “oftentimes way beyond the call of duty” to build the Biosphere (p. 100). The contractor, John Miller, found the effort highly productive: “The synergistic design and development process could never have been better exemplified than it was at the Biosphere, with design and building going on at once. A typical project of that scope probably would have been in the planning, design, and architectural drawing stages for several years after we had started construction” (p. 89). “Power to control people’s meaning basically controls everything” (p. 106).

The “exhilaration of starting the experiment” soon dissipated (p. 162). Jane Poynter thought initially that, “by necessity, life inside Biosphere 2 would pull” the crew together (p. 208). Instead, “it seemed that the adversity inside Biosphere 2 was dynamiting … previous friendships and faith in one another” (p. 208). Within the first two weeks even the “Mission Control was sucked into the emotional whirlpool” (p. 147). This sent “a loud message” to the crew that they had better “not talk honestly” among themselves, or “they would be punished” (p. 147). It soon became clear that “several biospherians were very unhappy” with the “social structure,” which had “transformed itself into a strict hierarchy, with some biospherians distinctly lower on the ladder than others” (p. 147). Jane Poynter had expected “to help make major decisions that affected” the “life support system”, but that was “increasingly not the case” (p. 173). She felt that she had “become the underclass … left out of any major decisions, and at times stripped of responsibility” (p. 240).

At times, Jane Poynter was so furious that she thought her “head would burst with anger” (p. 207). At other times, she felt like her “heart was breaking” (p. 207). She simply did not know “how to handle so much confusion, so much hurt” (p. 211). The crew did not explore the “deep divide and unleash the issues” as they were “more explosive” than anyone felt they “could handle in the open” (p. 209). But so much “buried emotion festers, and it festered in Biosphere 2” (p. 211). After ten months from the start, “no honest conversations were possible” any longer (p. 213). The crew members did whatever they needed to do, playing the roles they needed to play. The “trouble came when there was no specific character to hide behind”, when the crew members had to be themselves (p. 237). The two primary technical problems of “reduce oxygen levels, and inadequate food production, were indeed serious, but were understood” (p. 314). The third problem of being locked up, enclosed with only a few other people during an extended time, is an issue even today. Still, if Jany Poynter had to do it again, she’d “do it in a heartbeat” (p. 346).

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