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The Science of the DeepSea Challenge

Posted in UC3

Recently the film director and National Geographic explorer-in-residence James Cameron descended to the deepest spot on Earth: the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench.  He partnered with lots of sponsors, including National Geographic and Rolex, to make this amazing trip happen.  A lot of folks outside of the scientific community might not realize this, but until this week, there had been only one successful descent to this the trench by a human-occupied vehicle (that’s a submarine for you non-oceanographers).  You can read more about that 1960 exploration here and here.

I could go on about how astounding it is that we know more about the moon than the bottom of the ocean, or discuss the seemingly intolerable physical conditions found at those depths– most prominently the extremely high pressure.  However what I immediately thought when reading the first few articles about this expedition was where are the scientists?

Before Cameron, Swiss Oceanographer Piccard and Navy officer Marsh went down in it to the virgin waters of the deep. From

After combing through many news stories, several National Geographic sites including the site for the expedition, and a few press releases, I discovered (to my relief) that there are plenty of scientists involved.  The team that’s working with Cameron includes scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography (the primary scientific partner and long-time collaborator with Cameron),  Jet Propulsion Lab, University of Hawaii, and University of Guam.

While I firmly believe that the success of this expedition will be a HUGE accomplishment for science in the United States, I wonder if we are sending the wrong message to aspiring scientists and youngsters in general.  We are celebrating the celebrity film director involved in the project in lieu of the huge team of well-educated, interesting, and devoted scientists who are also responsible for this spectacular feat (I found less than 5 names of scientists in my internet hunt).  Certainly Cameron deserves the bulk of the credit for enabling this descent, but I would like there to be a bit more emphasis on the scientists as well.

Better yet, how about emphasis on the science in general?  It’s a too early for them to release any footage from the journey down, however I’m interested in how the samples will be/were collected, how they will be stored, what analyses will be done, whether there are experiments planned, and how the resulting scientific advances will be made just as public as Cameron’s trip was.  The expedition site has plenty of information about the biology and geology of the trench, but it’s just background: there appears to be nothing about scientific methods or plans to ensure that this project will yield the maximum scientific advancement.

How does all of this relate to data and DCXL? I suppose this post falls in the category of data is important.  The general public and many scientists hear the word “data” and glaze over.  Data isn’t inherently interesting as a concept (except to a sick few of us).  It needs just as much bolstering from big names and fancy websites as the deep sea does.  After all, isn’t data exactly what this entire trip is about?  Collecting data on the most remote corners of our planet? Making sure we document what we find so others can learn from it?

Here’s a roundup of some great reads about the Challenger expedition:

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