Robert Ballard:
nerdless science

A report by Tom Knapp,
November 1989

Mix the best characteristics of Marco Polo, Captain Nemo, George Lucas and Indiana Jones, and you'll get Dr. Robert Ballard. And, according to Ballard, that composite is what makes up the scientist of the future.

Ballard, famed oceanic explorer who led the teams discovering the sunken ships Titanic and Bismarck, encourages students to pursue careers in science. Children often shy away from science careers, he said, because they see scientists portrayed as "social misfits."

"Don't just be a bookworm," he told a packed audience of elementary and middle school students at Millersville (Pa.) University. "Don't become a nerd. Don't become a dweeb. Become a scientist -- they're not the same thing."

Ballard described the Jason Project, an educational foundation founded by him to boost interest in the physical sciences. The project is closely tied to the latest oceanographic technology, which Ballard used in his exploration of the sunken Titanic and Bismarck. Simply put, it involves underwater robots who do the actual work while being controlled by scientists on the surface. Ballard calls the new technology "telepresence," since for all intents and purposes it's the same as being in a submarine -- without the danger and with more versatility.

Another benefit, he explained, is the possibility of beaming the information as it happens to "downlink stations," where people can see science as it happens and can in some cases even participate in the action. Twelve downlink stations have already been set up across the U.S., Ballard noted, including one at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute. Earlier this year, 225,000 students across the country watched history in the making as Ballard used the robotic technology to find and explore the wrecks of ancient Roman sailing ships dating to the 3rd century. Next year, he said, students will be able to view the exploration of two American warships sunk in Lake Ontario during the War of 1812. Some students will even be able to take the controls at their stations and maneuver the robot.

Surprisingly, 47-year-old Ballard said neither the Titanic nor Bismarck discoveries were the most exciting of his career. Instead, he said, it was his discovery of a new underwater ecosystem off the Galapagos Islands. But it was the Titanic episode that attracted the attention of children across the country, he said. The thousands of letters proved to him that science could be made interesting to children, despite the national downward trend in science and math.

If students aren't turned back on to the sciences, he said, the U.S. will suffer in the very near future. "We're No. 1 in military might. We're No. 17 in scientific literacy," he said. With peace more on the minds of world leaders, military might will soon take a back seat, Ballard said. However, he added, the majority of students in U.S. colleges who are studying in the hard science fields are foreign -- "We're training the competition."

The social misfit image often turns students away, partially because of peer pressure and the need to fit in, Ballard said. "But it's a lot of fun," he assured the students. "I'm a scientist for life ... and I'm not a social misfit."

Teachers in the math and science fields need to act more as recruiters, he said -- "to go on the offensive and sell."

Taking names from classic Greek mythology, Ballard named his original unmanned submersible robots Jason and Argo. Now a family of robots descended from that initial pair form the backbone of the Jason Foundation for Education. Ballard designed the foundation to "stimulate children in the hard sciences" using the underwater robots, he explained. Explaining telepresence, he said, "It's not important that my gall bladder and kidneys and lungs are down there. What's important is that my mind's down there, and my eyes and my hands. ... Eventually, people are going to have downlink sites in their homes, and they're going to travel electronically," he predicted.

His field of science, he said, is one of the most exciting careers available. "It's the romance of exploration," he said. "When I go to work, I look at a piece of earth that no human has ever seen. We have a better map of Mars than we do of the bottom of the ocean."

Children with a head for science or math should "do their mathematic pushups," he said, since math is the basis for much of his work. For instance, he said, he was able to create a "force field" around the 1812 warships using a mathematic formula. "You're going to be the explorers of tomorrow," he told students. "Do you know what you have to do to become an explorer? Learn your math." He also urged students to become well-rounded, with a wide range of interests. High school and college sports, for example, taught Ballard good teamwork, and literature, such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Travels of Marco Polo, sparked his interest in sea exploration.

Currently, Ballard is a senior scientist in the Ocean Engineering Department of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, head of the Deep Submergence Laboratory and director of the institution's Center for Marine Exploration. In addition to his discoveries of the Titanic and Bismarck, he has participated in more than 60 deep-sea expeditions, including the first manned exploration of the Mid-Ocean Ridge, the world's largest mountain range.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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