Monday, May 2, 2011

In the Middle of Nowhere, Part Two

Rob will likely cover our day at Arcosanti, Taliesin West, and the Diamondbacks / Cubs game in a later post. [Posted May 5 but back-dated to appear in chronological order.]  In the meantime, we moved on from Phoenix for another day in the desert and some time in Tucson and at other points of interest.

We bombed out of Tempe and found ourselves having Mexican breakfast before too long at the delightful LB Inn in Florence—a town apparently best known for its prison. Not much later we made it to Biosphere 2, a site both opposed to and weirdly consonant with the ideals and practices of Arcosanti and (to a lesser extent, I think) Taliesin West.

Biosphere 2 began as an ambitious project to simulate life on Earth within a closed environment, so that it could be studied systematically—and perhaps so that methods of resource management could be developed that would lead to more sustainable practices in society at large. While the two "missions" that made up the first phase of Biosphere 2's existence were fraught with political and scientific (not to say quasi-scientific) intrigue, there's no denying the project's ambition. At least $150 million--in 1980s dollars--when into constructing this mammoth facility, which contains multiple simulated environments and theoretically could provide a self-sustaining environment in which the residents grew their own food and managed their own contained atmosphere.

Without going into the whys and wherefores of why things changed—the site today is no longer sealed and is managed by the University of Arizona, which conducts experiments related to water and its behavior—it's interesting to consider what an investment and what a radical act of faith Biosphere was. There is something evangelical about the idea that a facility of this size and complexity can (a) function and (b) tell us things about human interaction with natural systems that we cannot otherwise learn. At least today, though, the site is being used for genuine research, which is more than can be said of many formerly utopian or quasi-utopian sites in the world today.

Seguing from utopia to dystopia, we also took the tour at the Titan Missile Museum, south of Tucson. Here it is taken as an article of faith that the cold war strategy of mutually assured destruction was both necessary and successful. The root pessimism of this perspective is at plain odds with the belief in human potential that has marked some of our other stops so far, but there is some of the same technological thrill here as at Arcosanti and Biosphere 2—except that the Titan Missile project had way, way more money invested in it than either of those.

Deep inside a Titan first-stage engine
To say that the high modernist design of the nuclear program now seems childish and clumsy is not a new observation. But it's not a cause for smugness that our military machines have more computing power behind them—think of all the things they still fail at, and imagine how much human frailty still underlies the dream of a perfectible, secure world, whether one dreamed into life or created by command-and-control protocols.

We returned to Tucson and saw one of the old stand-bys of the Byways universe: idiosyncratic junk sculpture in some guy's yard.

Finally, we saw a baseball game: Tucson Padres 9, Colorado Springs Sky Sox 3. Tucson's Wade LeBlanc pitched a very solid seven innings, striking out seven. Welcome back to the desert, baseball.

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