How do we science? / Science

Exploring the Deep with Dr. Robert Ballard

When I was younger, I was obsessed with disasters of all kinds (yeah, I was a strange kid). I avidly read books about the bubonic plague and had a recurring dream that involved a black hole appearing in our solar system, ready to suck the earth into its depths. One of my favorite disasters, however, was the sinking of the Titanic.  I was so enthralled by the story that I borrowed a book about the boat from my 3rd grade classroom and ‘forgot’ to return it.

My fascination with disastrous situations may have abated as I’ve grown up, but I was still really excited last night to get the chance to listen to a talk by Dr. Robert Ballard, the scientist who led the expedition that discovered the Titanic. Dr. Ballard spoke at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC about “Human History Under Water.”

Dr. Robert Ballard daydreaming about his new big discovery.

Dr. Robert Ballard daydreaming about his next big discovery.

He’s twenty-something years older than when he became famous for finding the Titanic, balding on top, but still is at the forefront of deep ocean exploration. In addition to the Titanic, Ballard has also discovered the final resting places of the Bismark, JFK’s WWII PT boat, and a number of ancient shipwrecks in the Mediterranean and Black Seas. On a more scientific note, he was one of the first people to discover that hydrothermal vents in the deep sea are able to support a wide variety of life in the absence of sunlight.

The Titanic, post-iceberg.

The Titanic, post-iceberg.

What struck me most throughout his talk was how engaging he was as a speaker. I’ve given talks before (though never to an auditorium full of people who’ve paid to listen to my ramblings) and I know how difficult it can be to get people excited about your research. Ballard used humor and storytelling to keep the audience interested in his talk—including a hilarious story about fooling graduate students into thinking that Alvin (a tiny submersible he uses to do deep sea research) is leaking during their first dive inside of it.


The Alvin at work in the deep sea. Looks fun, no?

The Alvin at work in the deep sea. Looks fun, no?

The scientist in me was surprised, however, when Ballard started to delve into the reasons we should continue our exploration of the deep ocean. He seemed to be saying that the continuance of American power through utilization of natural resources on or beneath the seafloor should be our motivation for future explorations.

It’s true that the deep sea contains a plethora of metals, natural gas, oil, and other compounds we terrestrial beings have in limited supplies. But it was strange to me that after detailing his discovery of the delicate and unique ecosystems of hydrothermal vents, Ballard would endorse the usage of these areas for human gain. Is this what science is about? Finding out how we can best use and harvest natural resources from our planet? Maybe Ballard was just being practical, or trying to speak in terms he felt his audience would agree with. But I wish he had talked as well about the inherent value of better understanding the world we live in, and how even random-seeming scientific discoveries can lead to profound changes in our daily lives (penicillin, anyone?)

However, Ballard’s talk also inspired me and made me want to embark on explorations of my own. It made me think about what that word—explore—even means. I tend to assume that the vast majority of the world has already been mapped, but Ballard made a good point: we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the bottom of our oceans. Who knows what lies in wait down there in the crushing darkness, waiting to be discovered?


This is the future. Get excited.

This is the future. Get excited.

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