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SimEarth: The Living Planet
Or, finding Gaia in an Afternoon
James Lovelock was born on the 26th of July in 1919 in Letchworth Garden City in England. His family was of modest means, and he was brought up as a Quaker. By every account I can find, he was a principled guy of high moral character. He attended Birkbeck College and then the University of Manchester. He received a PhD degree in medicine at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. His first two jobs (as far as I can find) were as a photographer, and as a farm hand. The latter was a job he kept until his professor recommended he apply for a post at the Medical Research Council where he worked to find ways of shielding soldiers from burns. During that time, he also worked at the Common CoId Research Unit at Harvard Hospital in Salisbury, Wiltshire. In 1959, after already having invented the electron capture detector, Lovelock received a D.Sc. degree in biophysics from London University. This gets a little messy to figure, because in ‘54, he was awarded the Rockefeller Travelling Fellowship in Medicine. So, among these listed jobs, he was also traveling to Harvard and Yale. In 1961, he settled in Houston to take a position as a professor of chemistry at Baylor. Of course, this is James Lovelock… he apparently wasn’t contented with this so he also worked with JPL in Pasadena on lunar and planetary research.
His work with JPL was primarily involving the NASA Viking missions and instruments for the analysis of atmospheres and planetary surfaces for the potential detection of life. This resulted in a prototype gas chromatograph mass spectrometer that Lovelock fashioned at his home on his kitchen counter. This work resulted in a rather important epiphany. Regardless of what specific biochemistry extra-terrestrial organisms happen to have, a chemical equilibrium (such as that of the Martian atmosphere) would mean that it’s incredibly unlikely life is present. A chemical disequilibrium would similarly hint that life is present. While this may seem obvious now, this was not obvious in the early 1960s.
That rumination about the detection of life via atmospheric disequilibrium turned into the Gaia Theory (the name is actually from author William Golding). The basic idea is that life influences the non-living, and the non-living influence the living via natural selection. In Gaia Theory, the Earth is complex system that self-regulates via the interactions of the biosphere with the atmosphere, hydrosphere, pedosphere, and even the lithosphere to create an environment, both physical and chemical, that is good for the living things of the Earth. There is some evidence for this theory in many aspects of the Earth’s temperature, ocean salinity, and atmospheric composition. This co-evolution of organisms with their environment lead some to view the Earth as a single living system, or a single organism. In this sense, Mother Earth is alive.
Lovelock was awarded more than 50 patents for various inventions over his career. His work enabled environmental science, planetary science, space exploration, and ultimately the environmental movement. Of course, the most important result of his work was the inspiration of SimEarth.
William Ralph Wright was born on the 20th of January in 1960 in Atlanta, Georgia. He was an avid Go player from a young age. Wright found beautiful that a game with very simple rules could have amazingly complex strategies. This would serve him well later in life.
He and his family ended up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and it was there that Wright graduated High School at 16. He then attended Louisiana State and after two years transferred to Louisiana Tech. Apparently, Wright was a curious young man. He started his higher education in architecture, and then transferred to mechanical engineering. This apparently didn’t sufficiently whet his appetite and thus he focused on computer science and robotics. Two years later, in the Autumn of 1980, Wright went to The New School in Manhattan. Manhattan is expensive, and Wright lived in an apartment over Balducci’s, in Greenwich Village. His interest in computing was strong, and he spent his free time looking for parts in electronics surplus stores. The search would come to an end when he bought himself an Apple II and began learning AppleSoft BASIC, Pascal, and 6502 assembly. A year later, Wright left his educational endeavors without a degree and moved back to Baton Rouge.
In 1984, Wright completed his first video game, Raid on Bungling Bay, for the Commodore 64. This game was a helicopter action game where the player dropped bombs on islands. For this game, he also created a level editor. Wright personally had more fun with the level editor than he did the action game, and his inspiration for Micropolis was born.
In 1986, Wright was at a pizza party in Orinda, California. There he met investor Jeff Braun, and the two men founded Maxis. Work on Micropolis then began in earnest. Initially, he had targeted the Commodore 64. This game was released first for the Amiga and Macintosh in February of 1989 as SimCity. Versions for the PC and C64 followed later that year.
At this point, Wright had already been thinking about SimEarth, and he was discussing it with his neighbor, Stewart Brand. Brand was a personal friend of Jame Lovelock, and he was familiar with Lovelock’s work on Gaia Theory. Brand told Wright that he should discuss the idea with Lovelock, and Wright did so. Lovelock was then brought into the project.
Wright, as usual, did the programming and game design. Lovelock provided advice on all aspects of the science involved, but also aided with geophysical modeling and on Gaia models where “biology and geology are tightly coupled.” He also created a scenario in the game called the “Daisyworld.” At the time, SimEarth was the only model of the Earth as a system. From the One, December 1990:
Interviewer: Have you ever been involved in any other computer simulations of natural processes on this scale?
James Lovelock: No, and nor has anyone else! The great climate models that use super computers look only at the atmosphere. Most of them don't even include clouds and none of them take into account the ocean or the biology.
SimEarth, The Living Planet was released in 1990 for Macintosh, Windows, and MS-DOS at $69.95 ($156.63 in 2023), and it received positive reviews. The One gave it a rating of 95% and Entertainment Weekly gave it an A-. In 1991, SimEarth won “Best Secondary Education Program” and “Best Simulation Program” from the Software Publishers Association.
For myself, I didn’t own a copy of SimEarth as a youngster. If I had, I imagine I would have spent as much time with it as I did with SimCity. This would have certainly annoyed my parents, but one of the few luxuries of being an adult is that I can allow myself such indulgences.
The sytem requirements of the IBM PC release are:
IBM PC, Tandy, and 100% compatibles
MS/PC DOS 2.1 or higher
10MHz or faster required
640K RAM and 1.5MB of hard disk space required
VGA, MCGA, EGA, Hercules, or Tandy graphics
Adlib, Sound Blaster, Sound Master, and Tandy sound supported
3.5” Floppy in box, 5.25” available
Rather amazingly, the entire world fits on a single 3.5” floppy diskette.
In my case, the 10Mhz PC is my Turbo XT, which has both Adlib sound and VGA. This machine is above spec in some cases, and but barely meets spec on the CPU side of things. In my installation, I chose to use 256 color with lower resolution (320x200). I would highly recommend a higher resolution with lower color to get more on-screen.
On this new game screen above, a player can create a planet or select a scenario.
If the experimental mode is chosen, the player has unlimited energy to do as much as he/she wishes (player/Gaia energy is different from SimEarthling energy). In the hard mode, the player must do everything. Gaia will do nothing automatically. This sort of breaks the entire point of the simulation, and takes the game from fun to… well… not fun (in my opinion). Easy and average have a starting energy limit, but otherwise Gaia self-regulates as the Gaia Theory proposes.
If a player chooses Aquarium world, the game starts with a planet that lacks any dry land. Here the player is intended to create some dry land to allow intelligent life to form. SimEarth makes the assumption that fire is required for smarts, and therefore the SimEarthlings need land.
If one chooses Stag Nation, the intelligent SimEarthlings are on an island too small to allow for major technological development. As such, the player will need to either expand the island, or create a land bridge.
Earth Cambrian Era starts the game with Pangea 550 million years ago. This scenario allows the player to witness the continental drift, and then to aid in the development of intelligent life.
Earth Modern Day places the player in control of… Earth… as is, warts and all.
Mars. If a player wishes to be Elon Musk, here’s the scenario for that. The game starts with barren rocks. Everything else is up to the player.
With the Venus scenario, the player is tasked to lower the atmospheric pressure and cool the planet thereby allowing life to emerge. This is effectively the opposite of the Martian scenario.
The Daisyworld scenario shows off the Gaia Theory, and it was based upon a simulation that Lovelock made to test his theory (that simulation was also named Daisyworld) in 1983. This scenario receives the most mention in the manual. The stated goal of this scenario is to regulate the planet’s temperature via daisies. The dark ones heat the planet, the light ones cool the planet. As solar output increases, the temperature will rise unless the player does something with the daisies.
The left hand side of the screen shows the controls. The game lasts 10 billion years. You can control plate tectonics, rain fall, solar intensity, mutation frequency of life… and so on. You can let the simulation play out from starting conditions, or you can intervene. Your interventions can range from something like changing the axial tilt, or cloud albedo to something far more blunt like an asteroid impact, or even just changing the elevation of a land mass. You can even pull a 2001 move and place a monolith to accelerate the development of intelligence, or a Doctor Strangelove move and drop an atomic bomb.
SimEarth is an incredibly complex simulation, and I won’t cover every single game aspect. The user manual is 198 pages (if we exclude the glossary and appendices), and describing every menu and screen would be tedious. The basic premise of the game is that you are Gaia (more or less), and you run the planet. The manual gives short primers on the basic science needed to understand the game itself, and it breaks down each game mechanic, menu, setting, and play mode. It also includes a short essay titled “What is Gaia?” written by James Lovelock.
Myself, I find SimEarth quite interesting and quite fun. In my opinion, it didn’t reach the staggering fame that SimCity did primarily because the learning curve is steeper. For those with sufficient curiosity to learn the game, it can be entertaining while others will find the interface and controls byzantine, and the mechanics bewildering. There is a reason, obviously, why the game had a 198 page manual, a machine specific addendum, a glossary, and appendices.