28 January 2009

Robert Ballard in conversation

Robert BallardDr. Robert Ballard was in town yesterday for out university's distinguished speaker series. I'd seen his TED talk (below), which is pretty good, but his talk last night was really superb. If I were to characterize his presentation approach, it would be, "Take the best stuff from 50 years of work and be funny." (Ballard went on his first expedition as a high school student a the age of 17.)

Echoing a recent theme in this blog about being inspired by fiction (here and here), he talked about how he wanted to be Captain Nemo when he grew up.

He talked about the discovery of hydrothermal vent communities, and how they almost blundered into a vent plume that could have turned their submarine into a molten heap of slag. He talked about his finding the wreck of the Titanic, and -- actually more interestingly -- his search for more ancient shipwrecks, looking for the "empties" of sailors in the Mediterranean Sea. He talked about how they found even better preservation in the Black Sea. All this with wry humour and a kid's enthusiasm.

During questions, he'd just said that he was most proud of his discovery of hydrothermal vent communities, because they were really new forms of life. Shortly after, he spotted a large cockroach and joked, "I've discovered another new form of life. It's got it's hand up. I'll take your question in a minute."

He indulged the audience and took quite a few questions. He talked about how a huge amount of wrangling he did to get an expedition associated with the Jason Project in the Galapagos Islands going after a barge with almost all the equipment sunk... It was perfectly clear that he could have talked a lot longer and not run out of material for a long time.

My one concern was that during his talk, he mentioned exploiting the ocean's resources a couple of times. During the reception afterwards, I asked him about that, pointing out that management of ocean resources has an abysmal track record. Being Canadian, the example that comes to mind is the collapsed cod fishery, which looks like it may not come back for a very long time, if ever. He gave a much more nuanced answer, saying, "You can't turn 72% of the planet into a park." He also talked about the importance of knowing what is out there so it can be sensibly managed.

If you have a chance to hear this guy speak, don't miss it.

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