Every day in the calendar has been claimed several times over for various religious or historical reasons, to say nothing of the new ones that have cropped up lately (Pi Day, Bloomsday and May the Fourth, to name just three). But there are two that I feel are worthy of wider celebration. One is Yuri’s Night, April 12th, the day in 1961 on which Yuri Gagarin first orbited the Earth. Less well known, so obscure it doesn’t even merit a name, is January 23rd. For today marks the fifty-sixth anniversary of Trieste’s journey to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest that humans have ever traveled.
Not much fuss gets made over undersea explorations, even in science fiction circles, which I think is a pity. To me, inner space is just as mesmerizing as outer space, and the descent to Challenger Deep is the most extreme oceanic journey possible. Although a few unmanned probes have gone down there since, it wasn’t until 2012 that any other person descended to the level that Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh reached in Trieste (and, oddly enough, the newcomer was the director James Cameron).
So on this day, and because it’s sitting on the bookshelf next to me, it seems a good time to talk about Robert Ballard’s autobiography Explorations (co-written by Malcolm McConnell).
Now, my expectations are relatively low regarding autobiographies about famous people whose livelihood does not relate in some way to writing. Even when cowriters or ghostwriters are present, a book can easily degenerate into settling old scores, defending their past actions unconvincingly, or simply reeling off the names of every celebrity they’ve ever encountered.
This book is better than that. Ballard has been involved in enough significant undersea expeditions that simply recounting them fills the pages amply. I knew he’d discovered the wrecks of both the Titanic and the Bismarck, but I hadn’t heard about the Roman shipwrecks, the black smokers, or that he was embroiled in the tail end of the controversy over plate tectonics. (It still seems strange that something as fundamental as plate tectonics was only proved in the last fifty years.)
The autobiography therefore divides neatly down the middle: Ballard’s oceanography career in the 1970s, and his wreck-hunting from the Titanic on, with the precarious nature of funding for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute as an ongoing background thread. As you might imagine, the hunt for the Titanic gets the largest amount of space, but the book also provides decent overviews of sea floor spreading and hydrothermal vents. Some of the later shipwreck expeditions, especially those in the Black Sea, are skimmed over faster than I’d like, but there’s enough detail to make me want to research them further.
And, as always when you’re dealing with the ocean deep, a fair chunk of the book is devoted to the machines that make it all possible:
The cruise was a seismic profiling survey of the deep sedimentary rocks of the continental rise, almost 8,000 feet below our keel. To probe those layers of rock, we towed a powerful high-energy sound wave generator, the “sparker”; in effect, a man-made lightning-and-thunder device. Banks of diesel electric generators on the stern charged a series of huge capacitors in the sparker with more than 100,000 joules of static electric energy. About every twenty seconds, this tremendous pulse of energy was discharged into the water from the tip of an electrode that served as a giant spark plug.
That discharge produced a flashing explosion, so bright the glare could be seen by orbiting astronauts at night. The shock wave shook the 1,800-ton vessel along her entire 200-foot length. This man-made thunderstorm was repeated endlessly, every twenty seconds, around the clock. My first two days aboard Chain, I slept fitfully until exhaustion took over. The high-energy pulses from the sparker blasted down and were reflected off the bottom as a strong acoustic echo. The harder the bottom, the more energy was deflected. But a considerable portion of each pulse passed through the sediments and continued downward, deeper into the rock layers. Finally, when the energy wave encountered increasingly hard layers of rock, it would reflect back to the surface.
Someone once said that, for the price of a single space shuttle launch, you could send a deep ocean submersible to the bottom of the ocean, twice a day, for ninety-eight years. I have no idea if this is true, and even if it is, the two are so different as to be incomparable. Still, with all the recent emphasis on the other planets in our solar system, it’s good to remember that our own oceans are equally wondrous and in some ways just as mysterious. This book is by no means a classic, but it’s highly readable and will hopefully give you a glimpse into how we study our underwater universe.
Explorations: My Quest for Adventure and Discovery Under the Sea by Robert D. Ballard and Malcolm McConnell
Length: 407 pages
First published: 1995, Hyperion