The excitement of exploration

The Champagne Vent offshore of Santorini.

With a rather busy week out of the way (which neatly included the production of blackberry and elderberry wine, as well as a blackberry clotted cream ice cream) I can finally take a few minutes to draw some attention to some really nice science.

Back in about 1993 I was fortunate enough to be part of a school trip that went over to the Mildenhall American airbase local to us in the Cambridgeshire fens to watch a live video stream and broadcast chat with Robert Ballard‘s JASON project; basically a hundred or so kids sat in a lecture theatre with a massive live projection of an underwater ROV doing some Top Science™ over a hydrothermal vent off the coast of California.

Robert Ballard, for those who are not aware, is something of a legend in underwater exploration; he discovered the wrecks of the RMS Titanic and the Bismarc, he was the technical advisor on the program SeaQuest DSV, and was the main advocate of scientists using the Alvin submersible to begin to properly investigate our oceans.  He was one for the first scientists to directly observe black smoker activity in 1979, and these rather amazing geological phenomenon have been a repeated subject of investigation by his numerous research projects in the decades since.

One of the most notable things about Ballards approach to science has been his relentless pursuit of engagement with the public; whether it be submarine archaeology, marine biology or geological expeditions they have almost always been accompanied by live streaming to schools to try and encourage a passion for science in children.  With the advent of the internet, now anyone can join in.

Over the last week or so his most recent project has been investigating hydrothermal vents around the Santorini caldera in the Mediterranean (the one formed by a massive eruption believed to have brought down the mighty Minoan civilisation on the neighboring island of Crete).  There’s a good sumary of progress here.  Being able to watch live science like this is – as far as I’m concerned – our generations equivalent of the moon landings.  In fact, seeing as less people have walked on the floor of our oceans than have on the moon, I’d say it’s even better.  Not only do you get to see scientific exploration happening live, but the voice broadcast alongside gives you an impression of what science is really like fromt he mouths of the scientists themselves.  To quote the ROV pilot from the live stream just 30 seconds ago as a new feature resolved into view “my god that is so cool”.  Not everything about science is spreadsheets, labcoats, and statistical significance.

Sometimes it’s all too easy to take efforts like this for granted.  Our exposure to a variety of spectacular wildlife programs can give the (very false) impression that we have a good understanding of what is going on under our oceans.  The fact is they are a vast unexplored wilderness; we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about much of the oceans, and these things cover 2/3rds of our planet.  I have no doubt there’s some pretty big surprises down there still to be found.  So I shall continue sitting in my office, analysing spreadsheets on one screen while keeping my eye on the little live-streaming window in the background, because you never know when a 1000 ton fluorescent-purple squid with an attitude problem is going to squirt its way out of the inky darkness.

Nautilus Live streaming page:


About Pete Rowley

Earth Scientist with a background in volcanology and sedimentology. Enjoys a good rant, beer, and games. Dislikes reality TV, crowds, and unreasonable people.
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