Tuesday, March 4, 2008

What's Out There?

Robert Ballard, Ocean Explorer

Ocean covers most of the earth (in fact over half of US territory lies under water) and only a small fraction has been explored. NASA’s budget to explore space is 1600 times the budget of the NOAA to explore the oceans. Indeed, there were more ships exploring the oceans of the southern hemisphere in Captain Cook’s time that there are today. Robert Ballard thinks that’s wrong.

Ballard developed his passion for the ocean as a 27-yearold and since then has made 120 expeditions over 49 years, using eight different models of submersibles. The Mid Ocean Ridge, the biggest mountain range on earth, was found in 1973-74. This volcano-studded range sweeps over 25% of the earth’s surface in the Pacific and Indian Ocean. And yet few know of its existence.

There was some heat unaccounted for in their calculations around this area. The search to explain this heat led to the discovery of huge geothermal spouts underwater at temperatures up to 650°F. Way too hot for life everyone thought. And yet he showed us photographs of amazing organisms living in these hostile conditions – ten foot long tube worms, and enormous clams bigger than your hand, creatures that live by chemosynthesis rather than photosynthesis.
Ballard’s voice rang with the conviction of a true He made impassioned pleas for greater exploration – after all these heat spouts, as one example, spew huge amounts of heavy metals just waiting to be mined.

Ballard is best known for his underwater archaeology on the Titanic, the Bismarck, and the Yorktown. He showed photos of perfectly preserved ancient Greek artifacts in the Black Sea, where the H2S perfectly preserves such artifacts.

He described the frustration of working in submersibles which took 2½ hours to descend or resurface, resulting in a five-hour commute for just 3 hours work on the bottom. Remotely controlled submersibles are a breakthrough allowing him more productivity, but more importantly, expanding the number of people who can ‘explore the ocean’ remotely through Immersion Presents (www.immersionpresents.org ). Through telepresence based on satellite feeds, and very high (10Gb) Internet links, people can “go where no one has gone before – on Planet Earth”. In particular it will bring young kids into live research environment; they’re best suited to drive the remote submersibles, because of their gaming experience. His vision was encapsulated in a photo of a young girl with an open mouth and a look of wonder as she experienced the depths of the ocean.

It was one of those special TED moments when a person with a deep passion about a topic was able to convey the wonder of his field, and bring us, for 30 minutes at least, to share in that passion and wonder. He received a standing ovation of 1.5 on the standing ovation scale.

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