Poynter, Jane 1962-

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Poynter, Jane 1962-

PERSONAL:

Born 1962, in Surrey, England.

ADDRESSES:

Office—Yogi & Co., 3481 E. Michigan St., Tucson, AZ 85714. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER:

Environmental researcher and memoirist. Paragon Space Development Corporation, president; Yogi & Co. (multimedia firm), head. Worked as chief scientist for SPACEHAB's experimental ecosystem and for the Seawater Foundation's carbon-sequestration project. Consultant, writer, and speaker on sustainable development.

WRITINGS:

The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes inside Biosphere 2, Thunder's Mouth Press (New York, NY), 2006.

SIDELIGHTS:

Jane Poynter is most famous for participating in the original Biosphere 2 project. This experiment sought to explore whether humans could construct and sustain themselves in an entirely self-contained, fully functional ecosystem. Poynter is the president of Paragon Space Development Corporation, which she cofounded while in the Biosphere, and head of the multimedia firm Yogi & Co. She has designed experiments for both the Mir and the International space stations and has served as chief scientist for SPACEHAB and Seawater Foundation projects. She consults, writes, and speaks on sustainable development, and has made presentations to the United Nations Environment Programme, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

On September 26, 1991, Poynter and seven other "biospherians" sealed themselves into Biosphere 2, a three-acre, entirely self-contained environment in the Arizona desert. This air-tight complex enclosed seven environments (ocean, rain forest, savannah, desert, marsh, a small village, and farmland) and was designed to allow the occupants to subsist without any external aid, growing their own food, recycling their own water and carbon dioxide, and receiving oxygen via plant photosynthesis. Poynter was involved in the project from its inception, designing and managing the agricultural projects. In her first book, The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes inside Biosphere 2, Poynter gives a detailed account of her time in Biosphere 2.

Throughout its two-year course, the first Biosphere mission met unforeseen challenges. Poynter was injured within the first month of the project, losing the tip of a finger to a rice-hulling machine, and had to leave the Biosphere for several hours to receive treatment. Unstable carbon dioxide and oxygen levels plagued the project, often causing the crew to feel light-headed and short of breath. According to Lewis Dartnell, writing on the Web site of the Astrobiology Society of Britain, on some cloudy days photosynthesis was so reduced in the Biosphere that oxygen levels dipped "beyond the point where the air masks drop down on a passenger jet." Ultimately, several thousand pounds of oxygen had to be added to the Biosphere on two occasions. Other problems included insect invasions (cockroaches and invasive native ants thrived in the Biosphere, killing off many of the species that were brought in for the project) and reduced food yields due to parasites and crop failures, resulting in a constant state of hunger for the crew that bordered on low-level starvation. Most notable, according to Poynter's memoir, was a major social breakdown among the crew in the first six months of their two-year mission. This resulted in the formation of two factions that largely refused to speak to each other. According to Poynter, learning how people cope with extreme isolation and interdependence in close quarters may well constitute the most significant experimental finding from the project.

Owing to the secrecy surrounding this privately funded project, mainstream media coverage on the Biosphere quickly devolved into innuendo, and unfounded rumors ranged from biospherians sneaking out for pizza to cult practices and animal sacrifice. This led to a great deal of reporting on mishaps (such as Poynter's injury and the added oxygen) and little attention to the Biosphere's numerous awards, the project's ongoing collaborations with the Smithsonian Institute and universities such as Yale and Columbia, and the more than fifty experiments performed as part of the mission. Carol Haggas, writing for Booklist, praised Poynter's memoir for highlighting "both the successes that were ignored by the media and the failures that received excessive attention."

Although some reviewers, like Dartnell, found the book "beautifully written" and felt that it "strikes a good balance between describing the history of the unique collection of individuals that came together to build Biosphere 2, explaining the science behind the design and construction of the project, and her intensely emotional experiences over the two years of closure," others were more critical of the book and even the Biosphere itself. Antonia Baum wrote in her review for American Scientist that "the book's scattershot format mirrors the haphazard nature of the entire project—both seem to have lacked a clear plan. Poynter interrupts scientific discussions with jarring personal intrusions and passages that read more like a travelogue. She is at her best when delving into the personal but devotes too many pages to the minutiae of the oxygen-carbon dioxide debacle and the petty politics of the egos involved in the project." Nonetheless, a reviewer for Publishers Weekly assessed that "Poynter's story makes for instructive reading" as the author describes the social and psychological challenges the biospherians faced and the ramifications these might have for extended space travel. Ilse Heidmann of the Library Journal highly recommended the book as a "fascinating" and "well-written" record of "the joys and tribulations of being a wilting guinea pig in a novel scientific experiment."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

American Scientist, January 1, 2007, Antonia Baum, "A Garden of Eden."

Arizona Daily Star, February 4, 2007, "Biospherians, in Glass House, Threw Some Verbal Stones, Author Reveals."

BioScience, February 1, 2007, "Life in Biosphere," pp. 193-194.

Booklist, September 1, 2006, Carol Haggas, review of The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes inside Biosphere 2, p. 30.

Library Journal, August 1, 2006, Ilse Heidmann, review of The Human Experiment, p. 118.

Los Angeles Times, October 11, 1991, "Woman in Biosphere Cuts off Fingertip," p. 37.

New York Times, October 11, 1991, "Biosphere Crew Member Loses a Fingertip," p. 13; October 12, 1991, "Injured Crew Member Taken from Biosphere," p. 6.

Public Relations Journal, February 1, 1993, "Rebuilding the Image of Biosphere 2," p. 5.

Publishers Weekly, July 10, 2006, review of The Human Experiment, p. 67.

Tucson Lifestyle, September, 2006, Scott Barker, "No Place Like Dome," pp. 128-139.

United Press International, October 10, 1991, "Injured Biospherian May Have to Leave Biosphere Temporarily for Surgery," p. 1010.

Whole Life Times, October 1, 2006, Jessica Ridenour, review of The Human Experiment, p. 46.

ONLINE

Art Center Summit Web site,http://www.artcenter.edu/summit/ (July 16, 2008), profile of author.

Astrobiology Society of Britain Web site,http://www.astrobiologysociety.org/ (July 16, 2008), Lewis Dartnell, review of The Human Experiment.

Common Ground,http://commongroundmag.com/ (October, 2006), Jessica Ridenour, review of The Human Experiment.

Jane Poynter Home Page,http://www.janepoynter.com (July 16, 2008).

Paragon Space Development Corporation Web site,http://www.paragonsdc.com/ (July 16, 2008), profile of board members.

Scientific Blogging,http://www.scientificblogging.com/ (July 16, 2008), profile of author.

Wired News,http://www.wired.com/ (October 18, 2006), Erica Gies, "Life inside the Biosphere Bubble."