SAN FRANCISCO Spinning tales of discovery and adventure like a modern-day Captain Nemo, famed deep-sea explorer Robert Ballard didn't disappoint during the opening keynote of electronicaUSA with the Embedded Systems Conference on Tuesday (March 30).
It seems that there could be a story in almost everything Ballard has done in his long career so many leagues under the sea. It's hard to upstage someone who believes he may have not only figured out the origin of life, but also dived down 20,000 feet to visit the location, a series of life-enabling hydrothermal vents that dot the ocean floor.
"This discovery has just shaken so many foundations of biology. One was that the origin of life on earth wasn't some lightning bolt hitting some soup and creating amino acids. More than likely, these hydrothermal vents were the site of the origin of life," said Ballard. "It is causing us to really rethink a lot of things."
Scattered among those vents Ballard found a relative cornucopia of life " an amazing discovery considering that scientists didn't believe that life existed at such depths, where it's so dark that photosynthesis " and the life it creates is impossible.
One would think that Ballard's fame is linked to that discovery and perhaps it is among his peers in science. But to most people, especially kids, he is the man who ventured 17,000 feet below the sea to find the HMS Titanic.
The Titanic expedition was career-altering for Ballard. He'd done some pretty cool stuff up until that point, like helping to prove the theory of plate tectonics and shaking up beliefs on the origin of life. But he was no Nemo, despite having stumbled across giant clams and some pretty amazing 10-foot worms in the ocean depths.
"You would think that we would have gotten a letter" about these discoveries, Ballard told his audience. "Not one. I find a rusty old ship and I get 16,000 in the first week from kids."
(It's interesting to note that the Titanic expedition was actually a cover story. The real mission for Ballard, who was a career naval intelligence officer, was to find and survey two nuclear subs that had sunk in separate accidents years before. The Navy was interested in the condition of the reactors and the weapons systems.)
Somewhat surprised by the level of interest in his Titanic work, Ballard sensed an opportunity. "Millions of kids were touched by this expedition because it was real." So he created a program, called the Jason Project, which would bring kids to the bottom of the ocean in real-time. "The idea was to say to kids that if you will take this science class, and study this curriculum all year with all this yucky stuff math and science then the reward is that you get to go on these expeditions."
It worked. Using the same technology that was used to broadcast live World Wrestling Federation matches, Ballard linked scientists at the bottom of the ocean with curious kids across the United States.
The program is now in its fifteenth year. It started with 200,000 students but has ballooned to 1.7 million, most of whom are girls. "We focus on the middle schools," Ballard said. "The game is over by the 8th grade. All the foreign kids are kicking down the doors of U.S. universities, not the door of middle schools. We have succeeded in our educational reorganization when foreign kids are trying to get into our middle schools. And we are not there yet by a long way."
Ballard wrapped up his speech was hinting that his journey of discovery has just begun. These days, the explorer is focusing on the Mediterranean and the Black seas. He has already retraced some of the ancient sea routes between Rome and Carthage, a discovery he made by scouting for empty wine jars thrown overboard by drunken sailors.
Drawing a straight line on a map between ancient Carthage and Rome, Ballard drove his submarine perpendicular to that line looking for garbage. "I figured there had to be an I-95 here without an Adopt-A-Highway program," he said. "So I looked through 100 miles of mud and we didn't find a single empty until we hit the highway. And there were thousands of empties. They drank the entire way there."
Now he is looking in the Black Sea for ships that are almost perfectly preserved, because there is a lack of oxygen that can support organisms that would normally chew through the wooden ships. In his first attempt, he found a 1,500 year old ship with a mast that still had rigging on it.
"The artifacts in the cargo hold were absolutely stunning, perfectly preserved. If we had dug further we were confident that we would have found bodies that would have likely been better preserved than the mummies of Egypt," he said.
Ballard is convinced there is an untapped resource of history sitting at the bottom of the Black Sea, which will fascinate a new generation of explorers and children. "Can you imagine a million time capsules and what they will tell us?"