Thursday, January 12, 2012

Crystal Cathedral

Robert Schuller had a dream in the 1970s of a huge glass church, an enclosure of windows with no standard roof or wall, more light than shadow.  About the same time, a group at University of Arizona had a dream of a huge glass enclosure, an isolated living environment, testing whether plants and animals can survive in isolation.  Shuller built his dream as the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, but the dream fell apart when he and his son fought and split the supporters, bankrupting the enterprise.  The building was recently awarded in a court of law to the Catholic Church.  (The pictures to the sides of this paragraph are not of the Crystal Cathedral, but of Biosphere2.)

.Biosphere2 contains within its glass and steel structure, artificially controlled environments, simulating many of the world’s real ecosystems.  To the left is rainforest.  To the right is mangrove swamp, such as I visited last summer in the islands of Fiji.  But here I am high in the canopy of mangrove trees.

Private money built Biosphere2 in the 1980s.  It looks much like Crystal Cathedral on the outside, but on the inside it has a science mindset.  When I visited two days ago, I walked in rainforest, mangrove swamp, savanna, desert, and coastal fog; and saw the equipment that supported a closed system.  They built it to be self sustaining, then sealed it for two years with eight humans inside, living symbiotically with plants and animals, receiving no food, air, or water from the outside.  

The news media said the venture failed, that the people could not grow enough food, that oxygen in the air decreased.  But eight people survived for two years in here, recycling their waste, growing food, and maintaining usable air and water, all without outside help.  Biosphere2 is no longer sealed, but open for visitors and many ongoing science experiments.   

.Underneath the structure is a complex of equipment which creates the artificial environments, adjusting temperature, humility, rainfall, and wind.  

I found the “lung” most interesting.  Due to expansion and contraction of air within the various environments, pressure or vacuum could become a problem.  To moderate the pressure, the lung has a heavy central disk, shown in the right picture, which is suspended on the black rubber diaphragm around it.  The disc raises and lowers, holding constant pressure.  We could see the disc fall slightly when the door to the outside was opened for us to exit through a gush of wind.

The next day I entered the land of Tohono O’odham, second largest Indian reservation, after the Navajo.  I drove up to a high mountain they call "Loligam" where astronomers have been allowed by the Indians to build and operate Kitt Peak National Observatory.  I spent most of the day and half the night in a forest of twenty-five telescopes—optics and instruments of another kind of crystal, a “crystal cathedral” to view the heavens.

 In this view, are the oldest and newest telescopes on Kitt Peak.  On the right is the WIYN 3.5-meter—lightweight and computer-controlled.  On the left is the 84-inch instrument (2.1-meter) where back in the 1960s, a young woman was performing some clean-up science.

Vera Rubin was not exactly welcome in astronomy (no woman was then) but she took on the task of verifying the Keplarian Velocity curve for stars as they rotate about the centers of galaxies.  Everyone knew that stars move faster near the center than they do at the outer limits, just as planets do as they move about the sun, but nobody had actually measured the velocities.  So Vera set about the laborious task of speed measurement, which took her several years.  

When she published her results, she concluded, surprisingly, that all the stars were moving at the same speed.  Of course the real astronomers responded something like, “Yes, young lady, thank you for that, but you have made a mistake somewhere.  Go back now and find out where it is.”  So she repeated the work on other galaxies and found the result the same.  

Eventually, the entire physics community was upset and looking for errors in Vera’s work.  Today, the work stands, and the only explanation anyone has found is that some strange substance, which we call “dark matter,” accounts for the constant velocities of stars within galaxies.  I was happy to stand inside the dome, by the telescope, pictured here, where Vera spent so many hours and for which she received so much ridicule.

 In this view, two kinds of “cathedrals” look skyward—the 84-inch telescope where Vera Rubin discovered the basis for dark matter, and a scared mountain of the Tohono O’odham (“desert people.”)  They call the mountain, Baboquivari Peak, and say it is the navel of the world, the opening in the Earth from which they emerged after the great worldwide flood.  

 These last pictures progress through a sunset from Kitt Peak.  

 Is Kitt Peak a window to God as the Tohono O’odham believe Baboquivari Peak is, and as Robert Schuller believed Crystal Cathedral was?  Is Biosphere2 a miniature Kingdom of God as Jesus taught that the Church is, or should become?  The history of Science and Church shows confusion over which ground each of them should rightly claim as sacred.  

 The Church has historically misunderstood its own scripture regarding the nature of creation, and has since corrected much of its error.  But fights like the one between Schuller and his son show a failure of the Church to operate in the area of reconciliation, clearly the proper ground of Church.  Science also has failed in its defined goal of understanding the universe, as evidenced by “dark matter” arising after everything was well on the road to discovery.  

 Through it all, Church and Science still regard their goals as beautiful as ever, and they doggedly push at the edge of light, forever hopeful of illumination.  Words of the Church’s founder have not changed, and the universe is still unchanged and waiting there, for Science.  Both forever young, forever hopeful.


  1. Your trip has been fascinating, and engaging you and all, in inspiration and thoughtful ponderings. It's been both pysically challenging and beautiful, deeply changing environments, moods and beauties, finding correspondences and differences. My favorite moment in the lecture I attended on Tuesday was the final slide... showing the area that scientists have been able to study for planets in the fast universe... and found about 2000 and counting in a circle like the top of pin near our own planet.... in an area that filled the screen, highlighting that the unknown so far exceeds the known and even of the known, we know little... more soon I am off to the astro -physics lecture at Bridge in a moment to learn a little more of what I don't know... thank you for sharing your wonderful experiences so various and well planned and chosen on this trip.

  2. The photos are wonderful in this. I especially like the juxtaposition of Baboquivari Peak and the observatory.

  3. Ooo! Biosphere! What was the air like inside? Was you able to view the separate environments? Was the desert part hot and dry, and the rain forest wet and humid?

  4. crystal cathedral
    from here I view the heavens
    be little or much
    in time I see myself there
    twinkling bright among the stars

  5. Thanks Kathabela for seeing with me some of the juxtapositions in these various cathedrals. I find the idea of it interesting and enlightening.

    Yes Steven, on all counts. The various environments feel, inside Biosphere2 just as they do on Biosphere1 (earth).

    Mandy, thanks for your poem and its transport to the heavens where I too wonder in amazement at the twinkling stars.

  6. Sharon, I want to read about Vera Rubin. Thank you for all you write. Fascinating! I'll be heading to a bookstore. Wait, first, I have to check the Web. I hope I find her biography written by her.