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The Biotron at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

The Biotron at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

    In 1959, the National Science Foundation announced the award of their largest grant yet to build a scientific facility. The University of Wisconsin at Madison would use the money to build the BIOTRON. "Facilities like the Biotron are important for the stature and uniqueness of UW-Madison," the university said, because "Such units contribute to UW-Madison being viewed as a GREAT university, not just an AVERAGE university." Many agreed: where the 1950s had seen plant physiologists working in phytotrons, the 1960s promised biologists working in Biotrons. Jack Myers, who did much of the early research on algae, “claimed that 1/3 to 1/2 of all problems in Biology at the U. of Texas could or should be investigated in a biotron.” Under the heady sway of powerful technological visions like astronauts going into orbit and nuclear submarines crossing under the arctic, it seemed that in the future all would be technologists in trons: once the Biotron was built, said Donald Griffin the discoverer of echolocation, all that remained to complete biologists’ experimental control over the natural world would be a “cycletron and a marinetron” for water biology.

    Because living organisms, their activities and their behavior, represent dynamic systems fundamental dependent and closely attuned to the changing physical environment, biological research required the technical means for creating and regulating environmental conditions in which all component variables, and each in relation to the others, may be varied over a wide range and in sequences simulating normal and/or extreme conditions and cycles in nature. Consequently, when it opened, the Biotron had fifty rooms. It had already been decided that some rooms’ temperatures would stretch from -25ºC to +50ºC, with a humidity ranging from 1% to 100%, while other rooms might only require a temperature range of +10 to +45ºC, and humidity covering 5% to 100%. It provided plant and animal scientists withprecise monitoring of the range and a supply of the “highest possible accuracy” sensors (near ±1%), and the ability to electrically record environmental data and even be equipped with a “transmitter” “for control and/or data logging.” The data was fed into the Biotron’s new computer, a PDP-8/E-AA, complete with “teletype control,” “console,” and processor. The Biotron's then director, Howard Senn, felt that the needs of the Biotron and the budget would stretch just far enough that he spent an extra $3000 on an extra 4K of memory, taking the machine’s core memory to a whopping 8K! That was real computer power for 1971.

    The Biotron was Big Science. It was another example of a new class of laboratory that emerged during the Cold War, the “national” laboratories. Australia’s national phytotron emerged within the scientific arm of their government. In contrast, in the United States the NSF largely underwrote the national labs on the recommendations of consortiums of universities led by a technocratic elite of scientists. Prominent “national” laboratories built in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s included the Brookhaven Cosmotron, the Greenbank radio telescope, and the Madison Biotron. Together, they represented what was seen as the most cutting-edge science! 

    The Biotron actually further opened up remarkable insights into the concept of the biological environment. A debate erupted, for example, over the shape of nature: was the environment ‘square’ as phytotrons had constructed it, with lights and temperatures that changed almost instantaneously? Or was climate rather more a sine wave, or some sort of cycle? Or maybe, just maybe, the weather (to use the third term of this flexible category) was actually chaotic? There was speculation that what the science of biology really needed was a "Chaosotron".  In just the last twenty years, Matt Damon will be happy to know, researchers at the Biotron not only have worked on climate change research but also on perfecting the "space potato"! 

david munns