Friday, March 04, 2005


Scientist, explorer spreads message in Beloit


By Mike DuPre'
February 26, 2005

BELOIT-Imagine taking your family diving to the sunken hulk of the Titanic one Saturday morning and trekking across the Serengeti Plain that afternoon.

Robert Ballard does-and he's not imagining science fiction.

Ballard is one of the relatively few people who actually have visited the wreck of the Titanic. He found it 19 years ago and since then, he's found the German dreadnought Bismarck, the U.S. aircraft carrier Yorktown, the torpedoed British liner Lusitania and John F. Kennedy's PT 109.

Ballard notes the difference between the sunken craft he has found-lost items relocated-from the scientific discoveries he has made, such as thermal vents, magma-fueled geysers on the ocean bottom and the incredible wealth of plant and animal life around them.

The 63-year-old scientist and undersea explorer was at Beloit College on Friday to receive the Roy Chapman Andrews Society's Distinguished Explorer Award. It was the third time the award has been presented.

Andrews was a Beloit native and Beloit College graduate whose explorations, expeditions and exploits in the 1920s are said to have been the inspiration for the swashbuckling movie character Indiana Jones.

Ballard, a tall, trim man, is the National Geographic Society's explorer in residence. He won the society's Hubbard Medal in 1996. The society once awarded Andrews the Hubbard Medal for his paleontological discoveries, including the first complete nests of dinosaur eggs.

Ballard led the audience that nearly filled Eaton Chapel on Friday to the depths of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and Mediterranean Sea via slide show. But he predicted that soon people all over the world could visit remote and exotic places through electronic virtual travel.

In an earlier press conference, he said: "Within 10 years, the most interesting places on Earth will be wired, and you'll go there electronically.

"Ballard told the college crowd: "You have 52 vacations a year. They're called weekends, but you can't get anywhere.

As we wire the world, all the major places will be wired. You'll rent (remote-controlled) robots from Avis or Hertz and be able to visit them electronically.

"Before you dismiss Ballard as a dreamer, consider that he developed what he calls telepresence because of the time-five hours-needed to descend 12,000 feet undersea and return to the surface in a submarine.

"I spent most of my working day in a cold elevator. I wanted to beam myself down like 'Star Trek.' I watched way too much of that stuff," Ballard quipped.

But fiber optics and remote controls allowed him to develop submersible robots. His latest robot, Hercules, can hover over a deep-sea site for three weeks and send live images to the surface, where they can be relayed worldwide via satellite.

Consider, too, Internet 2, a new form of worldwide Web with a 10-gigabyte bandwidth.Available now to universities and colleges, "I-2 is coming," Ballard said. "Get ready, buckle up. It will make the present Internet look like a dirt road on the information highway. It will be like drinking information from a fire hydrant.

"Consider also that every morning he's at his office, Ballard "scuba dives" the kelp forest off California's Catalina Island while sitting at his desk in Connecticut. That's because he wired the 100-foot-high kelp beds with a submersible on a cable that sends video via Internet 2 to a 52-inch plasma monitor on his desk.

Ballard sees such virtual travel eventually becoming entertainment because now "the driving engine for more technology is people wanting to watch the Super Bowl in high-def, people wanting to be entertained and travel electronically.

"But now he's using the technology not only to map the Mid-Ocean Ridge-a 42,000-mile-long undersea mountain that circles the globe like the seam on a baseball-but to excite the imaginations of students, the next generation of explorers.

At the press conference, he said students wanting to be explorers must be curious and understand that they face a long journey of education.

"It's a long road," Ballard said. "What you need is a passion. I know a lot of smart people who didn't make it down the road, but passionate people make it down the road.

"In Eaton Chapel, he said: "Do not think exploration is in the history books. Most of history is yet to be written by this generation of students. … We need a Lewis and Clark expedition of the seas; no, a Lois and Clark expedition.

"The last slide in his presentation was of a middle-school girl viewing undersea exploration via telepresence. She was startled, eyes wide, mouth open.

"That's a future engineer," Ballard said. "That's a future explorer."


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