Closed ecological systems: It’s tough being God


Yesterday morning I got up and muddled through the morning as usual: turned on the coffee maker, let out the dog, and tried to read the paper as the baby gleefully destroyed the living room. I was grateful when he finally went down for his nap about 11:00 AM. That’s when it dawned on me that I had missed something — I had forgotten to turn on the sun. See, I’ve recently become God!

Or a god of a sort. I’ve created some “closed ecological systems” — ecosystems sealed in bottles — just to see if I could keep a little world “in balance.” Here’s the recipe… Based on sources like this and this, I’m prototyping a system that can be built with stuff from the grocery and the aquarium store for just a few dollars. I put all these things together in standard canning jars (with new lids), in various combos, and sealed the jars up:

  1. water from a well-kept freshwater aquarium
  2. aquatic plants to produce food and oxygen (hornswort and duckweed, plus unknown algae)
  3. ramshorn snails to eat algae and keep things clean
  4. washed rocks to provide some minerals and maybe carbonates
  5. a “micronaut” — actually a ghost shrimp — to run around to provide entertainment and assure me that life goes on

These little worlds are stored in the basement where the temperature is stable. That means someone has to go down every day and turn on the sun — a 50 watt light bulb. Otherwise the plants can’t photosynthesize and there’ll be no oxygen. That God is me.

I’m not sure how other Gods feel, but at first I was so enchanted with my little creations. The shrimp are the show! One moment they toss their long feelers so elegantly, like fly fishermen in the still of an Idaho morning. Then they suddenly lose all class and paddle madly with their innumerable legs, like dogs on speed. In the background the snails do elevator tricks, soaring from the top to the bottom of the jar with a kind of bloated accuracy. Meanwhile the duckweed shades all with a chuppah of green. How long could this magic go on?

Quite a while, it seems. After a few days I, God, got bored. Next time I, God, looked, there had been a Cain and Abel-like tragedy in the microcosm with two shrimp. I wasn’t so enchanted after that, though I had new respect for the resiliency of my denizens. Those are some tough little buggers down there. Seems like life will do ANYTHING to go on.

I don’t think I’m a jealous God, but I can be a stupid and forgetful one. When I forgot to turn on the Sun, I felt guilt, sorrow, sheepishness — why had I roped these creatures into this? What was I thinking? What did I expect to find out?

The shrimp were a little groggy, but I made it in time. This God has resolved to pay a bit more attention to his charges. I can’t speak for any other ones out there, but I wouldn’t be surprised if once or twice, one has fallen asleep on the job.

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