Dr. Ballard discusses life dedicated to underwater studies

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Union hosted Dr. Robert Ballard, Professor of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island and a former United States Navy officer, this past Wednesday in Memorial Chapel to discuss his famous works with marine discovery including the RMS Titanic, the Bismarck and the Yorktown, as well as current research into new aspects of marine biology, ocean plate-tectonics and the chemistry of oceans.

Ballard was introduced by family friend, Union student, Gordon Duncan ’16. Duncan recognized Dr. Ballard as, “A world-famous explorer, discover and historian.”

Ballard started his discussion with background on how he became interested in the ocean and what there is to learn about it.

When mentioning what sparked his interest in the topic, he stated, “the most prominent inspiration was definitely Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, especially Captain Nemo’s submarine, the Nautilus.”

After describing how he became interested in submarines and the sea, Ballard explained that when he revealed his interests in the ocean to his parents, “they showed full support.” Ballard then briefly went on a tanger, noting that “every parent should support their child in whatever they want to pursue as a career.”

Ballard stressed that if it were not for the support of his parents, he might not have had the career and reputation that he does today.

Ballard continued with a history of how he started his career and accomplished his various achievements. He began with how his passion began with Jules Verne and progressed when his parents would take him to nearby maritime museums and Naval bases in order to observe the machines that he would later operate and even design.

Ballard maintained his passion throughout high school. He experienced his first oceanographic expedition at the age of 17, and received an oceanographic scholarship at the same age.

Ballard recalled an especially interesting memory of when a rogue wave in the Pacific Ocean nearly sank the research vessel. He then smiled and said, “I was truly amazed by the ocean after that.”

Ballard continued his education attending University of California Santa Barbara, majoring in chemistry, geology, physics and mathematics. As was required for all male students, Ballard participated in ROTC, which he would continue two years later, ultimately becoming a member of the military and continuing his education in graduate school.

Ballard would eventually be transferred from Army intelligence to Naval intelligence, where, he was able to work with the submarine NR1: the deepest diving nuclear submarine of the American Navy at the time.

Ballard proceeded to discuss the geology of the oceans, specifically the Mid-Atlantic mountain range, which encompasses 23 percent of the world’s oceans. Ballard focused on the geology of the ocean in order to examine the importance it has for oceanic life forms past, present and future.

The importance of oceans in this regard are what is pressing space explorations towards Jupiter’s moon, Europa. Europa, Ballard explains, is believed to have an ocean, and possibly marine life-forms.

After receiving his doctorate and being worn out from researching dives, Ballard decided to settle down and teach at Stanford University.

In order to continue studying the bottom of the Ocean, Ballard believed that robotic technology was the next step. Ballard designed his first robotic submersible, which he named Jason. The Navy helped fund this project, and in return Ballard helped to find and determine what had happened to two nuclear submarines that went down during the Cold War.

In order to cover the expedition from the press, Ballard decided that finding the RMS Titanic, a ship that had been lost for 73 years, was the best cover story. Ballard explained that after finding the Titanic, he returned in order to discover and learn more about the ship, even relating how he was startled by light reflected in the remains of a crystal chandelier in the wreckage.

Ballard continued the discussion with his current work: operating a privately owned research vessel which he named the Nautilus.

The ship’s research is performed by full time scientists, graduate students, undergraduate students and even high school students. With his team, Ballard studies newly found life forms, newly discovered ocean chemistry and minerals.

While the team’s past work has always had a specific focus, they have opened their new work to anything, not knowing what they could possibly find.

With this description, Ballard compared his ship to a hospital’s emergency room, not knowing what they could find but being prepared for anything.

One particular discovery that Ballard is very enthusiastic about was the identification of new oil and mineral deposits in the ocean. This discovery will lead to economic incentives for industry to invest in sustainably mining the ocean.

Ballard stated, “For too long we have been hunter-gatherers with the ocean, as we once were for the land, but now we must become farmers of the ocean in order to preserve the life and ecosystems that it contains.”

With this statement on how we must learn to utilize and preserve the wildlife of the ocean whilestill meeting our needs as a species, Ballard concluded the discussion.

Ballard then went on to lead a question and answer session. Questions included how much his research costs annually as well as how new research about the ocean affects other areas of exploration, specifically space exploration.

In response, Ballard revealed that the cost of the ship is around six million dollars a year, and stated that his work has only prompted more interest in ocean exploration and has had no effect on interests into space.

When asked about the future of youth interest in ocean exploration and his specific work, Ballard stated, “I’m very optimistic about the future, with so many children seeking interest in ocean exploration, and that people should be reassured that with our exploration they will get a return of their investment because of all the economic opportunities that the ocean has to offer.”

Ballard validated his optimism by saying that funding has gone from four million dollars to 32 million dollars a year over the last 15 years, showing how his work has already started to gain significant influence

 

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