On October 12, 2014, as part of the Academy’s 2014 Induction weekend program, Robert D. Ballard (President, Ocean Exploration Trust; Director, Center for Ocean Exploration; and Professor of Oceanography, University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography) told the story of his passionate career in ocean exploration. He also discussed the educational initiatives he has created to engage a new generation of scientists. A condensed version of his remarks appears below.
Robert D. Ballard
Robert D. Ballard, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2014, is Founder and President of the Ocean Exploration Trust, Director of the Center for Ocean Exploration, and Professor of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography. He is an Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society, Commissioner for the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, and a Senior Scientist Emeritus at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
My love affair with the ocean began very early in my life. Although I was born in Wichita, Kansas – where all oceanographers hail from – my family moved during my childhood to the warm sands of San Diego, next to one of the largest oceanographic institutions in the world: the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, not far from the submarine base at Ballast Point near downtown San Diego. When I was in high school, I wrote a letter to Scripps – very much a “Dear Santa Claus” letter – expressing my admiration for the institution. I’m dyslexic, so I’m sure I misspelled “oceanography,” but I gave it my best. As with so many letters, I suspected that this one was just going to vanish within the institution. Fortunately, however, a kind researcher named Robert Norris Rakestraw (who was at the time doing groundbreaking work studying CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere) responded, informing me that Scripps had a program for rising high school juniors like me. I was lucky enough to be accepted and receive a scholarship to attend Scripps in the summer of 1959.
My luck continued at Scripps, and I was one of two students selected out of a group of thirty to go to sea that same summer. And so on the first oceanographic expedition of my life, I journeyed five hundred miles out into the Pacific Ocean to get hammered by the kind of unbelievably horrible storm that only the North Pacific can deliver. The strength of a storm and the size of its waves are determined by three characteristics: the speed at which the wind is blowing, the amount of time that the wind has been blowing; and the “fetch,” or the distance over which the storm is raging. Because the Pacific covers a third of the planet, it is pretty hard to beat that fetch.
We secured all our gear because there was no way we could possibly work in those seas, and we put our nose into the swells, creating one giant, amazing rollercoaster ride. We made no progress: our only goal was not to sink. We were summiting these forty-foot rollers, going up and down, until out of the gloom – a rogue wave. A rogue wave occurs as the result of the merging of different weather patterns that normally cancel one another out, but in this case potentiate each other. They do not travel great distances.
I was on the bridge of the ship when it appeared, and it was clear there was no way we were going to go over the top of that wave. It totally consumed us. We took on what is called green water. Green water is the very technical term for being under the ocean – so called because you are deep enough that the water appears green. We were down there completely submerged, hoping that our residual buoyancy would pop us up on the other side. And it did.
I was thrilled. I thought this was all thrilling. I was too young to be afraid, and I became addicted, quite honestly, to going to sea. I have been to sea every year since for the last fifty-five years. I think my latest trip was my one hundred and fifty-second. That first experience was invaluable in letting me know that I loved the ocean, but I still did not know what I wanted to be.
Returning to land after the storm, we visited the University of California, Santa Barbara, where a group of geologists, led by the marine geologist Bob Norris, spoke to us about the degrees the university had to offer. I studied the programs offered at Santa Barbara and found something called the “physical science degree.” That sounded pretty lame until you read the fine print, which explained that it was a five-year degree that allowed students to major in two physical sciences and minor in two. I majored in chemistry and geology and minored in physics and mathematics. In addition to getting this broad-based science education, I also took history, anthropology, and anything else I could find the time to take. I tell children now that a university is like a supermarket at which you should eat everything possible. You might be surprised by what tastes good, even though it doesn’t sound good. Have you ever had escargot with garlic?
At that time, because UC Santa Barbara was a land-grant state university, it was mandatory for men to enlist in the ROTC. Amazingly, at Santa Barbara’s oceanside campus overlooking the Channel Islands, they only offered Army ROTC! After enrolling, I chose to become an Army officer and went off to Fort Lewis to receive my training in Army infantry. Then I was selected for Army intelligence (which is actually not an oxymoron). I received my commission but had my call to active duty delayed so that I could go to graduate school at the University of Southern California in the marine geology program. One night at USC, there was a knock on my door and there was a naval officer standing there. He handed me an envelope (never open envelopes from officers!). The letter inside read, “Congratulations.” Maybe I shouldn’t have read past that, but it continued, “Your commission in Army intelligence has been transferred. You are now a Naval intelligence officer, and you have six days to go to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod.” I had to turn to my Rand McNally atlas to find out where the heck Woods Hole was – because Scripps never told me there was another oceanographic institute. But that is how I ended up here in New England. I spent thirty years at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and much of the story I am about to tell you took place there.
I would like to begin this next chapter of my story now by giving you some background on the ocean floor. One of the great features of our planet is the mid-ocean ridge. It runs around our earth like the seam on a baseball for a distance of forty thousand miles; it covers almost a quarter of our planet. And yet we played golf on the moon before we went to the single largest feature of our own planet, and we have better maps of Mars than of some parts of our own ocean floor. I often ponder the reasons behind the public’s relative lack of interest in submarine features of our planet. Subconscious cultural fears are a part of it: God is up in the sky, and the Devil is down below. Plus, it is dark, which is enough to scare a lot of people. There was a great cartoon in The New Yorker years ago in which two women are having tea, and one turns to the other and says, “Mildred, I don’t care about the bottom of the ocean.” Clearly the ocean floor is an issue that most people do not really care about. I have come to understand that attitude, though I am also working to change it.
So, how was the incredible mid-ocean ridge formed? The foundational tenet of plate tectonics is that the earth is made up of a series of pieces that we call “plates.” These plates are relatively thin: the lithosphere is about fifty miles thick. Yet the X and Y dimensions of a tectonic plate can be thousands of miles. Plates are in constant motion. In fact, they move in a ballet: a synchronized series of motions in which each plate is balanced and counterbalanced by the others’ behavior. The plates can do just one of three things, a fact that is lovely in its simplicity. They can either move away from one another, forming mountain ranges; move toward one another, creating head-on collisions that form great trenches; or move alongside one another, creating features like the San Andreas Fault. How does the separation of plates form mountain ranges? It rips open the earth’s outer skin. Just as your body produces blood that hardens, coagulates, and forms new tissue when you are cut with a knife, the earth bleeds its molten blood when two plates move apart and cause a tear in the lithosphere. The earth’s blood – a little hotter than ours at 1,200 to 1,400 degrees centigrade – rises from beneath the lithosphere and the asthenosphere in a constant effort to heal that wound. It then cools and forms new tissue, including mountain ranges. For this reason I’ve always emphasized, especially when talking with children, that I basically became a biologist who studies the largest creature on the planet: the planet itself.
Now, since the earth is not expanding or contracting, if it creates new tissue somewhere on its surface, it must be recycling old tissue, which is stored through a different process. That process is plate collision. Here the old plate – typically the oceanic one, because it is heavier and floating deeper in the asthenosphere – is predisposed to sink. That subduction zone refills the earth’s interior with the material it elsewhere bleeds into new surface tissue. The earth is about 4.8 billion years old. And that is why Earth is pretty compared to its sister planets, the stony inner planets of Mars, Venus, and Mercury: it has a continuous facelift.
The earth is undergoing a constant process of crustal genesis and crustal destruction. But when I entered this field no one had ever descended to the ocean floor and actually witnessed that boundary of creation. In the 1970s a group of marine geologists and other scientists, including myself, resolved to change this, undertaking the first expedition to the mid-ocean ridge. We formed an alliance with the French called Project FAMOUS (the French-American Mid-Ocean Undersea Study) and took out two different submarine vehicles.
You can follow the great rift of the mid-Atlantic Ridge all the way around the planet: from the Arctic Ocean down the center of the Atlantic, across the Indian Ocean, all the way across the Pacific, finally coming aground in La Jolla, California. There are tens of thousands of active volcanoes running along that ridge, so it is necessary to be a little careful. Fortunately, because they are under pressure and are coming from deep within the earth (and thus do not have a lot of volatiles), these are not violent explosions, and you can therefore get quite close to an active volcano in a submersible. It is also worth noting that along this ridge there are 42,000 miles of magma chambers at 1,200 to 1,400 degrees centigrade less than a mile below the surface. Only Iceland has really begun tapping that geothermal energy, which accounts for approximately 25 percent of the total energy they use.
In our early explorations to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the Mid-Cayman rise, we did not see a lot of life in the deep sea, because there is no light there whatsoever. In fact, most of the earth is below the euphotic zone, or the level to which light can penetrate. Most of the earth has never felt the warmth of the sun and never will. Because of this, photosynthesis as we know it cannot take place at those depths. Thus, there are not a lot of plants and there is nothing for animals to eat, so the food chain is dependent upon what comes from the euphotic zone in the form of marine snow, which falls in the deep sea at a typical rate of one centimeter per thousand years. It is not a lot of energy, and it is eaten multiple times on the way down. But by the time it arrives, there is still enough to support life; furthermore, we have discovered the presence of oxygen at the deep ocean floor. Nineteenth-century Manx naturalist Edward Forbes predicted that there would be no life in the deepest parts of the ocean because oxygen decreases as a function of depth. However, due to the Antarctic Bottom Water, which carries with it oxygen from oxidizing decomposing matter, there is actually plenty of oxygen at the ocean floor to support life. All that is missing is the sun.
In addition to the active volcanism, we also noticed on the mid-ocean rise large cracks in the newly formed lithosphere – consequences of continual plate motion. Unfortunately, one of these was so big that Alvin, our Woods Hole submersible, got stuck in it at a depth of 8,500 feet. That was a bad day at the office! But we did get out. In a later expedition on a faster spreading ridge, we came across another interesting feature: giant hydrothermal vents that looked like chimneys. These giant pipe organs actually helped solve a mystery that chemists had long pondered: Why is the ocean salty? Why does it have the chemical composition that it does? One would think we would have solved this problem long ago, but chemists’ best theory – water evaporates, falls as rain on land, picks up minerals, and brings the minerals into the sea – was flawed. The problem was that the chemistry of the world’s oceans is not the chemistry of the rivers that flow into it.
So we had a mass-balance calculation problem, and it was not until we found these giant smokers and accounted for their chemical outputs that we were able to solve it. Incidentally, “smokers” is a terrible term to use, since what emanates from them is, of course, not smoke at all. Rather, when water seeps into cracks near magma chambers close to the surface, that seawater is transformed at the hydrothermal reaction zone. It becomes completely altered by its chemical interaction with hot rocks near the magma chamber; then, driven by expansion caused by heat, it is ejected by the vents, enriching the surrounding area with minerals that determine, in part, the ocean’s overall chemical composition.
When we saw the first chimney, we were totally taken by surprise: we were not even sure what it was. I suggested to the Alvin pilot, “Let’s go over and find out how hot it is.” “Really?” he asked, incredulously.
We tried to get within a meter or so to stick our thermometer into the jet; unfortunately for us, the updraft of the vent was literally sucking us into the thing! But after some careful piloting we stabilized and took our measurements. Our pilot then made a great scientific observation: “That’s hot.” When we pulled out the device, it had completely melted. The pilot then added, “You know, Bob, our window is made out of the same stuff.” It was 650 degrees Fahrenheit: hot enough to melt lead, and hot enough to melt our porthole, burning our submarine and us with it. Well, after that, we put temperature sensors all around Alvin so that we would not be so surprised by these super-hot underwater environments again.
When we closely observed the jet spew out this dark smoky fluid, we saw that the fluid was actually crystal clear for about two or three centimeters after it initially exited the jet. Here, we must keep in mind that the bottom temperature around the jet is about 4 degrees Centigrade, but the solution coming out of it is around 350 degrees Centigrade. When the fluid comes out, it becomes “quenched”: the solids fall out of the solution. What looks like smoke is actually microcrystals of what are called polymetallic sulfides. These include minerals like pyrite, chalcopyrite, and anhydrite, and they were being formed before our eyes. As a geologist, it is one thing to pick up a rock in New England that is 350 million years old, and another one entirely to watch one born in front of you.
And notably, these deposits contain commercial-grade ore of copper, lead, silver, zinc, and gold. Just consider for a moment that this is occurring along 42,000 miles of the mid-ocean ridge. Now consider that the entire oceanic crust began at that point. So the entire oceanic lithosphere, which easily constitutes 60 percent of the planet, could be as rich in ore. In fact, we observe this in the ancient pre-Cambrian shield regions of Canada. Their mines are old black smokers, as were the mines of Cyprus that drove the Bronze Age. Eighty percent of the copper of the Bronze Age came from black smokers when the closing of the Tethys pushed Cyprus out of the ocean. The copper mines of Oman are all ancient black smokers. So the mineral potential is quite amazing, in addition to the energy potential.
This series of astonishing discoveries continued during an expedition to the Galapagos rift in 1977, when we came across a Disneyland of creatures completely by surprise. We did not have a single biologist on the expedition because, as they put it, “We don’t want to look at rocks.” Admittedly, they could not have known that we would stumble across these amazing oases of life. The most prominent organism we saw was the giant tube worm, which is commonly a meter to a meter and a half in length and is white with a red tip. These worms feed by sticking their feathery lungs out to ingest the toxic fluids coming out of the hydrothermal vents. This deadly solution is laden with hydrogen sulfide, and they ingest it. Surrounding the vents, we also found giant clams. These are not recommended to eat – although one of my graduate students tried one and he is still alive. But they smell terrible, like rotten eggs.
What is really odd about both the giant clams and the worms is that they have hemoglobin in their bodies: each tube worm contains around a pint of human-like red blood. This is necessary because these creatures live in a high-flux environment that unpredictably swings from having plentiful oxygen to very little. They therefore use their blood as a sort of battery to store their oxygen for when they have a strong puff of hydrogen sulfide.
When we dissected the first giant clam, we found that it quite amazingly had no internal organs. There was no mouth, gut, or digestive system. Its entire body had been colonized by what we now call an “extremophile” bacterium: a microorganism that evolved over eons to replicate photosynthesis in the dark.
As you may know, many scientists believe that the conditions found in these deep-sea trenches closely resemble the early conditions of our planet, and that these organisms may resemble the early life on earth in some important ways. For example, modern deep-sea extremophiles’ use of chemosynthesis and storage of oxygen may resemble those processes used by very early microorganisms. Our planet has harbored oceans for a very long time. The oldest rock found on Earth is 3.8 billion years old; it is a sedimentary rock found in Greenland, so we know there was an ocean there at that time (simple life began on earth about 3.6 billion years ago). We also think that the tectonic plates have been moving for over three billion years. It is very possible, then, that life on our planet began in an environment similar in some ways to that of the deep-sea hydrothermal vents. I like to tell skeptics of evolution, “If you have trouble being related to a monkey, try this!”
But despite the fact that we were making all of these amazing discoveries in the 1970s, I was having a problem. I had been diving for years in any submersible I could find. Some of them were not so good to dive in; some, in fact, almost killed me. But the primary problem with manned submersibles, at least for me, was that I spent most of my time going to work, especially when I was conducting research at unprecedented depths. When I dove into the Cayman Trough to observe the deepest volcanoes in the world, it took my vehicle six hours to descend to the bottom and six hours to resurface. That is twelve hours of commuting in a twenty-four-hour day, making my average bottom time around an hour.
Even when I was exploring the ocean floor at its average depth – which is 14,000 feet, or 4,000 meters – it took two and a half hours for me to get to work in the morning and two and a half to get home. I was able to do very little lateral exploration: the average distance traveled in a deep submersible is a mile. If you are on a 42,000-mile mountain range, you have great job security – there’s no doubt about that! But I wanted to come up with a better way of getting to work that would allow me to spend more time at work, so I stopped diving for a time to clear my head. During this break from exploring, I taught geology and geophysics at Stanford in 1979 and 1980. This was an exciting time to be in that neck of the woods, with the emergence of Silicon Valley and the development of all the associated technology: fiber optics, microprocessors, digital imagery. Immersed in this technological revolution, I should have said, “Hey, let’s make a cell phone.” But instead, I considered how I could use this new technology to make my job better.
Eventually I developed an idea for something I called “telepresence,” the basic premise of which is neatly illustrated by the James Cameron film Avatar. Just as the researchers in the film transferred their consciousness to the Na’vi avatars – those ten-foot-tall, blue, bipedal creatures – in order to explore a planet hostile to their human bodies, I wanted to transfer my spirit to the bottom of the ocean, unconstrained by the evolutionary restrictions imposed on my human body.
Most of our planet is not friendly to our bodies; we have evolved ourselves into a corner. Our bodies are limited in what they can accomplish and the environments in which they can function. But telecommunications technology allows us to build and control our avatars to carry our spirits to new domains. This has been one of my lifelong projects: to create a research station that will allow us to explore the ocean without sending our bodies down in submersibles. In the 1970s, I first approached Woods Hole, and then the National Academy, with some of my ideas. When they were skeptical about offering their support, I went to the Navy, which was interested in the project. (You all must know well that academics have two fears in academia: the first is that you do not get funding, and the second is that you do.) Once they agreed to fund me, I ran to MIT to start convincing students in the joint ocean engineering program with Woods Hole not to make their fortunes working in robotics for General Motors, but rather to help me set up my deep-sea laboratory.
So we constructed the Deep Submergence Laboratory in 1982, systematically creating the building blocks for future laboratories of this kind. It took us thirty years of building to get to where we are today, and there is certainly more progress to be made. But the driving force still remains the same, and the end goal – to have a telepresence – is obtainable.
But when the Navy offered me funding for my telepresence project decades ago, it was on the condition of accepting some new jobs as a naval intelligence officer. Two nuclear submarines were lost during the Cold War: the Thresher and the Scorpion. Both had active reactors, and the Scorpion was carrying nuclear weapons. The Navy wanted to be sure the vessels were safe, but they did not want the Soviets to know where they were. So we needed a cover story. I said, “Have I got a cover story for you!” Because the Thresher sank to the west of the Titanic loss site and the Scorpion to the east, I asked, “Why don’t we tell the world I’m looking for the Titanic?” Well, they were furious when I actually found it, let me tell you.
The beautiful new technology we had been working on allowed us to search for the nuclear submarines with a remotely controlled vehicle system that never ascended to the surface. It could stay down for days and even weeks at a time: we really got bottom time. With this equipment (which looks relatively primitive compared to the command centers and vehicles we have today), we located the Thresher and the Scorpion, examined their nuclear reactors, and measured the radioactivity. We caught animals living in the wreckage and did radiobioassays on them: they did not have elevated levels of radioisotopes. Both reactors had scrammed (performed an automatic emergency shutdown) and buried themselves in the deep sea mud, so there was no cause for concern.
After that, we got our cover story for the Soviets: we found the Titanic. With our little remotely operated vehicle, we went up onto the bow, down the grand staircase, and then six decks in, where the chandeliers were still hanging. It was pretty amazing. A little later on, in 1986, we went inside the forward torpedo room of the Scorpion with our vehicle system. After the Titanic and the nuclear submarines, we were hooked, and we found the Bismarck, the Yorktown, and other sunken ships on behalf of National Geographic. In science, you begin on a journey and you do not know where it will take you; it is never a straight line. Naturally, you are always asking questions, and each discovery spawns more questions. One of these questions led me to a different kind of ship discovery entirely.
In 1987 I came to Harvard to meet with a group of archaeologists, including Larry Stager, the director of the Semitic Museum. We began to try to calculate an estimate of the number of ancient shipwrecks there would have been. We kept coming up with a figure of one million, which seemed impossibly high. But we found that when you begin your calculations early, around 4,000 B.C., it does not take you long to reach a million wrecked ships. Wondering where these millions of mariners were, I naturally looked to the Mediterranean Sea.
The dominant school of thought at the time was that ancient shipwrecks were most likely to be found right along the shoreline, because ancient mariners’ routes stuck close to the coast.
But I had some doubts about this theory. From a mariner’s perspective, hugging the shoreline is dangerous: there are rocks to run into; pirates (unlike the ones portrayed in films) launched from the land when they spotted a ship passing by; and storms are much more violent in shallow water. Furthermore, most of these mariners were businessmen, and they wanted to get from point B as quickly as possible. Finally, Carthaginians, as you know, did not get along with Romans. All this led me to believe that there were probably deep-water trade routes. To find them, I considered the journey from Carthage (in modern Tunisia) to Rome. Performing my most sophisticated analysis, I took a ruler, drew a straight line between Carthage and Rome, and said, “They went that way.”
But how was I going to find the wrecks? I had to get in the head of a Carthaginian sailor carrying cargo to Rome. They brought a tremendous amount of wheat and wine, the latter of which was stored in large clay jars called amphorae, which are, in essence, rocks, so they have long shelf lives. I considered my sailor, who is going to Rome with a captain, five other sailors, and three thousand vats of wine. What are he and the crew going to do along the way? Do you think they will dip into the sauce? Absolutely. Are they supposed to? No. So what are they going to do with the evidence? Chuck it overboard.
If my theory was correct, they had drank and thrown the empties over. The sedimentation rate on the ocean floor in the area I proposed to look was a matter of centimeters per millennium, so I knew what evidence I needed to search for. I decided to take a ship and a submersible out to find this highway running through a deep-water stretch. I started in Sardinia and went perpendicular to Trapani in Western Sicily, knowing I would have to cross the route connecting Carthage to Rome somewhere, and I went looking for amphorae. I did not see a single amphora until I hit a narrow band two-and-a-half miles wide – that is how good their navigation was. Then I saw thousands of them. Once I found that highway, I just drove along it and started finding shipwreck after shipwreck.
One of the earliest ships we found was in the Skerki Delta; it was from the first century B.C. Off of the Sinai, we found a cargo of wine from a Phoenician ship that went down in 750 B.C.: the Iron Age, the time of Homer. We dated the ship by some idols we found near what would have been the living quarters. Over the next several years, having cracked the code of where to find them, we encountered an enormous number of these ships.
At many of the wreck sites we found, however, the ships themselves were gone, due to oxidization and shipworms. Even the deck of the much newer Titanic, for example, was eaten; all that was left were the dead shipworm shells. In a well-oxygenated ocean, wood has a life expectancy of only a couple of years before the shipworms will begin to colonize it. But one of my idols, oceanographer Willard Bascom, said that perfectly preserved ships could still be found in the Black Sea, which cannot support a shipworm population. We were barred from going there during the Cold War, but as soon as the Wall fell, I was eager to test Bascom’s hypothesis. We know that ancient mariners were active in the Black Sea since pre-Classical times. Then the Greeks came in and colonized the whole area. In fact, there was an area near Sebastopol where the Greeks established a colony in order to trade with the Scythians, and it was quite an area of maritime trade. We did a significant amount of work off the coast of the city Sinop in Turkey (Sinope in Ancient Greek), where we found ancient kilns, pottery, and amphorae.
The interesting thing about the Black Sea is that, as of 8000 B.P.E., it was a freshwater lake. Two scholars at Columbia University, Walter Pitman and Bill Ryan, propose that a massive deluge of salt water turned the Black sea into a saline body (they have also suggested this was actually the biblical flood of Noah). After the flood, the new salt water became trapped and stagnant. The water became anoxic – completely devoid of oxygen. This was also the largest reservoir of hydrogen sulfide on the planet, an environment completely inhospitable to life. All of this meant that if any wooden ships sank, there would be no organisms to eat them. Sure enough, we found perfectly preserved wooden ships on our exploratory expeditions.
On one particular ship that we found, we could actually see the carpenter’s adze marks after we cleaned the mud off. It was Byzantine, about one thousand five hundred years old. When we began to unearth the artifacts themselves, they were in mint condition. We found artifacts with still-preserved beeswax drippings. And just recently, we found a classical shipwreck from 500 B.C. that contained human remains. The DNA from those shipwrecks has the potential to tell us so much more about who these ancient mariners were.
I hope I’ve shown you that there is much more at the ocean floor than just mud. But I also wanted to discuss with you a new educational initiative I have undertaken, which is in many ways the culmination of the journey I just described to you. I recently started a new institute at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography called the Center for Ocean Exploration. I also created the Ocean Exploration Trust, which is a private 501(c)(3) nonprofit incorporated in the State of Connecticut. By being president of both, I can mandate that the two work together. There is an amazing alliance between the Trust and the University. But because the Trust can operate outside the bureaucratic constraints set by the University, our work can move at the speed of light.
Because my hero is Captain Nemo, I acquired my own ship, an East German spy ship generously donated to me in 2009. I then put money into it to turn it into a state-of-the-art exploratory platform called the E/V Nautilus. My next challenge was determining the source of my funding. I spent thirty years living at the trough of the National Science Foundation. As you know, we used to have a 90 percent success rate with grant proposals; we are now below 10 percent. I craved the flexibility and freedom to risk failure and follow my intuition and scientific hunches, which in my fifty-five years of exploration had always been the sources of my greatest discoveries.
I therefore set out to create an economic engine for the Center that did not require a dime from the National Science Foundation. I was not sure whether I could, but I decided I would give it a shot in my waning moments. First, I helped create the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration with a budget of $4 million. Then I was asked by President George W. Bush to serve on the U.S. Commission for Ocean Policy, and we reinforced the need for ships specifically dedicated to exploration. Now the Office of Ocean Exploration budget is at about $28 million. Some of that budget goes to my Center for Ocean Exploration. But, as my father told me years ago, to have twelve masters is to have none: the key to maintaining intellectual freedom is to let no one own more than 20 percent of you. For that reason, I have a diversified portfolio, with funding coming from the government as well as from a variety of private sources.
After I stabilized my funding, I put together a team consisting of two types of players. The first is graduate students and postdocs. The majority of them are actually graduate students, because they have nothing to lose with change, and change threatens power. The other part of the team is the advisory board, which comprises those I lovingly call the old farts. To be in my advisory board, you have to struggle to answer the following question: when did you get tenure? Then you are in! I do not work in the middle of the scientific estate. I work on the edges of it, with people in the very early stages of their careers and in the very advanced stages. Those of us in those later stages have wisdom and finally enough time to use it, and we also just want to know. We do not have a dog in the fight anymore. We do not care whether we are the first author on a paper. We are past that. We just want to know.
One of the primary projects of the Ocean Exploration Trust is a program that offers groups of scientists access to our E/V Nautilus research ship (which is owned and operated by the Trust). The Center for Ocean Exploration at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography also takes a strong supportive role in this initiative. In December 2014, in San Francisco, eighty-eight groups of scientists proposed the projects they would undertake if given access to the Nautilus. We will soon select a group and make their proposal a reality. It is a community-based and -driven process, and all the data will be open-source, made public as it is collected. A discovery could be made at any moment, so all around the United States, we will have teams of scientists willing to be awakened at two o’clock in the morning by data streaming into their smartphones from our laboratory. The concept we hope to execute is similar to running an emergency room of a hospital: we have no idea what the ambulance is going to deliver on Sunday morning. We are on-call twenty-four hours a day.
Right now, the projects of the Center for Ocean Research are focusing on using our technology to explore our own country. We are looking for oil and gas, mineral resources, new fisheries, rare earth metals, and, of course, natural wonders that need to be protected. All of these projects require state-of-the-art technology. We have, for example, powerful mapping systems on the hull of our ship that allow us to digitally map new ocean terrain, including the textural characteristics of the ocean floor. This can be done at full engine speed, so we have been covering ground rapidly. We also have remote-controlled vehicle systems that can operate twenty-four hours a day, controlled from an amazing staffed command center operated in shifts around the clock. We have pilots, copilots, navigators, video engineers, closed-loop robotic controls, and force feedback manipulators (controls that allow a pilot to “feel” what a remote-control robot is doing). This has already led to some exciting discoveries: new extremophiles, fish that can walk, a sunken German U-Boat in the Gulf of Mexico.
We use these resources to create a network off the ship and outside of the command center of teams that will interpret all of the data. In Rhode Island, we have the Inner Space Center and the Center for Ocean Exploration, all run by my students. Our hope is to facilitate the creation of multiple command centers. With $15,000, a department at a university can create a command center, and scientists can then enter the game with their students, using our technology to remotely conduct research and experiments.
I would now like to speak about our education program and how I try to capture the imagination of the next generation. I believe that outreach is less about science and more about scientists as role models. We live in a star-centric society, so it is crucial that Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields have visible role models. I recently did a presentation at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, on ocean exploration. Ten thousand five hundred young people showed up. The president of the university informed me that I broke an all-time attendance record set by Sir Elton John. The key, I believe, is to present our job as the most exciting one in the world.
Because Lewis and Clark were the “Corps of Discovery,” we call the Center of Ocean Exploration crew the “Corps of Exploration.” I mandate that 55 percent of the Corps’ positions of leadership authority be occupied by women, and that the composition of the Corps truly reflect the demographics of our country. Children looking at the individuals in our organization must see their faces as they might look twenty years out. If they do not, a message is sent that they cannot play, will not be let in. This is one of our top priorities, one to which we have dedicated an incredible amount of effort. All individuals in the Corps wear uniforms, which my academicians had a little trouble with, but I tell them they are meant to reflect that we are all team members – there are no titles within the Corps. There are only three Ph.D.s in the group, and the team is composed of a great variety of players who each fill a role essential to the operations of the Corps. A child needs to know that in the world of science, there are many positions to play, and more opportunities than are apparent in academia. In our lab, for example, we have high school seniors, college students, graduate students, postdocs, and Ph.D.s working alongside one another. I have received literally tens of thousands of letters from children interested in ocean exploration, and we answer every one of them – because I still remember the letter I wrote and the monumental importance of the response I received.
In short, our educational outreach goes – to borrow from Buzz Lightyear – from kindergarten to infinity and beyond. Students are very young when they first come out on our ship. The scientist I have selected to succeed me in the Corps, Katy Croff Bell, is an excellent example of this. She is an MIT graduate in engineering whom I met in 1999. She did her master’s degree in archaeology, then was a student of mine for seven years, and finally I hooded her two years ago with her Ph.D. in geology and geophysics. She takes no prisoners. A young student inspired by the Corps of Explorers who became a great explorer and role model herself: Bell represents to me the very hopeful future for the field of ocean exploration, and I expect her to inspire many more to pursue the STEM disciplines.
One of the added benefits of using telepresence technology to conduct live, interactive exploration from ashore is that we can involve a large number of students and teachers in the process. Seeing scientists in action as they explore the unknown – particularly when they make an important new discovery and act like children opening a birthday present – humanizes what many students may have seen as a dull process too complicated to fathom.
Helping the next generation of students excel in STEM skills is critical to our ability to deal with the difficult challenges humanity currently faces. Using the excitement of exploration and discovery to motivate students to “go the extra mile” has proven effective.
© 2015 by Robert D. Ballard
To view or listen to the presentations, visit https://www.amacad.org/induction.