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TED2008

Robert Ballard: The astonishing hidden world of the deep ocean

Filmed:

Ocean explorer Robert Ballard takes us on a mindbending trip to hidden worlds underwater, where he and other researchers are finding unexpected life, resources, even new mountains. He makes a case for serious exploration and mapping. Google Ocean, anyone?

- Oceanographer
On more than 120 deep-sea expeditions, Robert Ballard has made many major natural discoveries, such as the deep-sea vents. Oh, and he found the Titanic. Full bio

The first question is this.
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Our country has two exploration programs.
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One is NASA, with a mission to explore the great beyond,
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to explore the heavens, which we all want to go to if we're lucky.
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And you can see we have Sputnik, and we have Saturn,
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and we have other manifestations of space exploration.
00:31
Well, there's also another program,
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in another agency within our government, in ocean exploration.
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It's in NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
00:40
And my question is this: "why are we ignoring the oceans?"
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Here's the reason, or not the reason, but here's why I ask that question.
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If you compare NASA's annual budget to explore the heavens,
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that one-year budget would fund NOAA's budget
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to explore the oceans for 1,600 years.
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Why? Why are we looking up? Is it because it's heaven?
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And hell is down here? Is it a cultural issue?
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Why are people afraid of the ocean?
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Or do they just assume the ocean is just a dark, gloomy place
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that has nothing to offer?
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I'm going to take you on a 16-minute trip on 72 percent of the planet, so buckle up.
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OK. And what we're going to do
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is we're going to immerse ourselves in my world.
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And what I'm going to try -- I hope I make the following points.
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I'm going to make it right now in case I forget.
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Everything I'm going to present to you
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was not in my textbooks when I went to school.
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And most of all, it was not even in my college textbooks.
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I'm a geophysicist, and all my Earth science books when I was a student --
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I had to give the wrong answer to get an A.
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We used to ridicule continental drift. It was something we laughed at.
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We learned of Marshall Kay's geosynclinal cycle, which is a bunch of crap.
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In today's context, it was a bunch of crap,
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but it was the law of geology, vertical tectonics.
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All the things we're going to walk through
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in our explorations and discoveries of the oceans
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were mostly discoveries made by accident.
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Mostly discoveries made by accident.
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We were looking for something and found something else.
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And everything we're going to talk about
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represents a one tenth of one percent glimpse, because that's all we've seen.
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I have a characterization.
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This is a characterization of what it would look like if you could remove the water.
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It gives you the false impression it's a map.
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It is not a map.
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In fact, I have another version at my office
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and I ask people, "Why are there mountains here, on this area here,
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but there are none over here?" And they go, "Well, gee,
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I don't know," saying,
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"Is it a fracture zone? Is it a hot spot?"
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No, no, that's the only place a ship's been.
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Most of the southern hemisphere is unexplored.
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We had more exploration ships down there
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during Captain Cook's time than now. It's amazing.
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All right. So we're going to immerse ourselves
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in the 72 percent of the planet because, you know,
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it's really naive to think that the Easter Bunny
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put all the resources on the continents.
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(Laughter)
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You know, it's just ludicrous.
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We are always, constantly playing the zero sum game.
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You know, we're going to do this, we're going to take it away from something else.
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I believe in just enriching the economy.
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And we're leaving so much on the table, 72 percent of the planet.
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And as I will point out later in the presentation,
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50 percent of the United States of America lies beneath the sea.
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50 percent of our country that we own, have all legal jurisdiction,
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have all rights to do whatever we want, lies beneath the sea
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and we have better maps of Mars than that 50 percent.
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Why? OK. Now, I began my explorations the hard way.
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Back then -- actually my first expedition
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was when I was 17 years old. It was 49 years ago.
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Do the math, I'm 66. And I went out to sea on a Scripps ship
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and we almost got sunk by a giant rogue wave,
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and I was too young to be -- you know, I thought it was great!
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I was a body surfer and I thought, "Wow, that was an incredible wave!"
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And we almost sank the ship, but I became enraptured
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with mounting expeditions. And over the last 49 years,
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I've done about 120, 121 -- I keep doing them -- expeditions.
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But in the early days, the only way I could get to the bottom
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was to crawl into a submarine, a very small submarine,
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and go down to the bottom.
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I dove in a whole series of different deep diving submersibles.
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Alvin and Sea Cliff and Cyana,
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and all the major deep submersibles we have, which are about eight.
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In fact, on a good day, we might have four or five human beings
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at the average depth of the Earth --
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maybe four or five human beings out of whatever billions we've got going.
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And so it's very difficult to get there, if you do it physically.
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But I was enraptured, and in my graduate years
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was the dawn of plate tectonics. And we realized
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that the greatest mountain range on Earth lies beneath the sea.
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The mid-ocean ridge runs around like the seam on a baseball.
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This is on a Mercator projection.
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But if you were to put it on an equal area projection,
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you'd see that the mid-ocean ridge covers 23 percent
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of the Earth's total surface area.
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Almost a quarter of our planet is a single mountain range
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and we didn't enter it until after Neil Armstrong
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and Buzz Aldrin went to the moon.
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So we went to the moon, played golf up there,
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before we went to the largest feature on our own planet.
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And our interest in this mountain range, as Earth scientists in those days,
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was not only because of its tremendous size, dominating the planet,
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but the role it plays in the genesis of the Earth's outer skin.
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Because it's along the axis of the mid-ocean ridge
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where the great crustal plates are separating.
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And like a living organism, you tear it open,
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it bleeds its molten blood, rises up to heal that wound
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from the asthenosphere, hardens, forms new tissue and moves laterally.
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But no one had actually gone down
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into the actual site of the boundary of creation as we call it --
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into the Rift Valley -- until a group of seven of us
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crawled in our little submarines in the summer of 1973, 1974
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and were the first human beings to enter the Great Rift Valley.
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We went down into the Rift Valley.
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This is all accurate except for one thing -- it's pitch black.
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It's absolutely pitch black, because
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photons cannot reach the average depth of the ocean,
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which is 12,000 feet. In the Rift Valley, it's 9,000 feet.
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Most of our planet does not feel the warmth of the sun.
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Most of our planet is in eternal darkness.
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And for that reason, you do not have photosynthesis in the deep sea.
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And with the absence of photosynthesis
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you have no plant life, and as a result,
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you have very little animal life living in this underworld.
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Or so we thought. And so in our initial explorations,
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we were totally focused on exploring the boundary of creation,
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looking at the volcanic features running along that entire 42,000 miles.
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Running along this entire 42,000 miles
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are tens of thousands of active volcanoes.
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Tens of thousands of active volcanoes.
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There are more active volcanoes beneath the sea
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than on land by two orders of magnitude.
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So, it's a phenomenally active region,
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it's not just a dark, boring place. It's a very alive place.
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And it's then being ripped open.
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But we were dealing with a particular scientific issue back then.
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We couldn't understand why you had a mountain under tension.
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In plate tectonic theory, we knew that if you had plates collide,
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it made sense: they would crush into one another,
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you would thicken the crust, you'd uplift it.
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That's why you get, you know, you get seashells up on Mount Everest.
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It's not a flood, it was pushed up there.
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We understood mountains under compression,
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but we could not understand why we had a mountain under tension.
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It should not be. Until one of my colleagues said,
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"It looks to me like a thermal blister, and the mid-ocean ridge
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must be a cooling curve." We said, "Let's go find out."
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We punched a bunch of heat probes. Everything made sense,
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except, at the axis, there was missing heat. It was missing heat.
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It was hot. It wasn't hot enough.
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So, we came up with multiple hypotheses:
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there's little green people down there taking it;
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there's all sorts of things going on.
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But the only logical [explanation] was that there were hot springs.
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So, there must be underwater hot springs.
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We mounted an expedition to look for the missing heat.
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And so we went along this mountain range, in an area along Galapagos Rift,
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and did we find the missing heat.
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It was amazing. These giant chimneys, huge giant chimneys.
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We went up to them with our submersible.
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We wanted to get a temperature probe, we stuck it in there,
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looked at it -- it pegged off scale.
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The pilot made this great observation: "That's hot."
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(Laughter)
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And then we realized our probe was made out of the same stuff --
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it could have melted. But it turns out the exiting temperature
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was 650 degrees F, hot enough to melt lead.
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This is what a real one looks like, on the Juan de Fuca Ridge.
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What you're looking at is an incredible pipe organ
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of chemicals coming out of the ocean.
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Everything you see in this picture is commercial grade:
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copper, lead, silver, zinc and gold.
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So the Easter Bunny has put things in the ocean floor,
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and you have massive heavy metal deposits
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that we're making in this mountain range.
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We're making huge discoveries of large commercial-grade ore
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along this mountain range, but it was dwarfed by what we discovered.
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We discovered a profusion of life,
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in a world that it should not exist [in]. Giant tube worms, 10 feet tall.
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I remember having to use vodka -- my own vodka -- to pickle it
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because we don't carry formaldehyde.
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We went and found these incredible clam beds
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sitting on the barren rock. Large clams,
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and when we opened them, they didn't look like a clam.
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And when we cut them open, they didn't have the anatomy of a clam.
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No mouth, no gut, no digestive system.
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Their bodies had been totally taken over
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by another organism, a bacterium, that had figured out
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how to replicate photosynthesis in the dark,
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through a process we now call chemosynthesis.
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None of it in our textbooks. None of this in our textbooks.
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We did not know about this life system.
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We were not predicting it.
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We stumbled on it, looking for some missing heat.
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So, we wanted to accelerate this process.
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We wanted to get away from this silly trip, up and down on a submarine:
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average depth of the ocean, 12,000 feet;
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two and half hours to get to work in the morning;
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two and half hours to get to home. Five hour commute to work.
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Three hours of bottom time, average distance traveled -- one mile.
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(Laughter)
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On a 42,000 mile mountain range. Great job security, but not the way to go.
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So, I began designing a new technology of telepresence,
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using robotic systems to replicate myself,
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so I wouldn't have to cycle my vehicle system.
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We began to introduce that in our explorations,
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and we continued to make phenomenal discoveries
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with our new robotic technologies. Again, looking for something else,
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moving from one part of the mid-ocean ridge to another.
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The scientists were off watch and they came across incredible life forms.
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They came across new creatures they had not seen before.
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But more importantly, they discovered
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edifices down there that they did not understand.
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That did not make sense. They were not above a magma chamber.
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They shouldn't be there. And we called it Lost City.
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And Lost City was characterized by these incredible limestone formations
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and upside down pools. Look at that.
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How do you do that? That's water upside down.
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We went in underneath and tapped it, and we found that it had the pH of Drano.
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The pH of 11, and yet it had chemosynthetic bacteria living in it
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and at this extreme environment.
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And the hydrothermal vents were in an acidic environment.
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All the way at the other end, in an alkaline environment,
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at a pH of 11, life existed.
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So life was much more creative than we had ever thought.
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Again, discovered by accident. Just two years ago
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working off Santorini, where people are sunning themselves on the beach,
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unbeknownst to them in the caldera nearby,
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we found phenomenal hydrothermal vent systems
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and more life systems.
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This was two miles from where people go to sunbathe,
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and they were oblivious to the existence of this system.
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Again, you know, we stop at the water's edge.
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Recently, diving off -- in the Gulf of Mexico, finding pools of water,
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this time not upside down, right side up.
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Bingo. You'd think you're in air, until a fish swims by.
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You're looking at brine pools formed by salt diapirs.
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Near that was methane. I've never seen volcanoes of methane.
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Instead of belching out lava, they were belching out
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big, big bubbles of methane. And they were creating these volcanoes,
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and there were flows, not of lava,
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but of the mud coming out of the Earth but driven by --
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I've never seen this before.
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Moving on, there's more than just natural history beneath the sea --
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human history. Our discoveries of the Titanic.
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The realization that the deep sea is the largest museum on Earth.
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It contains more history than all of the museums on land combined.
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And yet we're only now penetrating it.
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Finding the state of preservation.
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We found the Bismarck in 16,000 feet. We then found the Yorktown.
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People always ask, "Did you find the right ship?"
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It said Yorktown on the stern.
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(Laughter)
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More recently, finding ancient history.
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How many ancient mariners have had a bad day? The number's a million.
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We've been discovering these along ancient trade routes,
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where they're not supposed to be.
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This shipwreck sank 100 years before the birth of Christ.
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This one sank carrying a prefabricated, Home Depot Roman temple.
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And then here's one that sank at the time of Homer, at 750 B.C.
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More recently, into the Black Sea, where we're exploring.
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Because there's no oxygen there, it's the largest reservoir
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of hydrogen sulfide on Earth. Shipwrecks are perfectly preserved.
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All their organics are perfectly preserved. We begin to excavate them.
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We expect to start hauling out the bodies in perfect condition with their DNA.
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Look at the state of preservation --
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still the ad mark of a carpenter. Look at the state of those artifacts.
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You still see the beeswax dripping. When they dropped, they sealed it.
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This ship sank 1,500 years ago.
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Fortunately, we've been able to convince Congress.
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We begin to go on the Hill and lobby.
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And we stole recently a ship from the United States Navy.
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The Okeanos Explorer on its mission.
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Its mission is as good as you could get.
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Its mission is to go where no one has gone before on planet Earth.
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And I was looking at it yesterday, it's up in Seattle. OK.
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(Applause)
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It comes online this summer,
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and it begins its journey of exploration.
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But we have no idea what we're going find when we go out there with our technology.
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But certainly, it's going to be going to the unknown America.
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This is that part of the United States that lies beneath the sea.
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We own all of that blue and yet,
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like I say, particularly the western territorial trust,
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we don't have maps of them. We don't have maps of them.
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We have maps of Venus, but not of the western territorial trust.
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The way we're going to run this -- we have no idea what we're going to discover.
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We have no idea what we're going to discover.
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We're going to discover an ancient shipwreck, a Phoenician off Brazil,
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or a new rock formation, a new life.
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So, we're going to run it like an emergency hospital.
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We're going to connect our command center,
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via a high-bandwidth satellite link to a building we're building
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at the University of Rhode Island, called the Interspace Center.
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And within that, we're going to run it just like you run a nuclear submarine,
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blue-gold team, switching them off and on, running 24 hours a day.
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A discovery is made, that discovery is instantly seen
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in the command center a second later.
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But then it's connected through Internet too --
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the new Internet highway that makes Internet one
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look like a dirt road on the information highway --
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with 10 gigabits of bandwidth.
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We'll go into areas we have no knowledge of.
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It's a big blank sheet on our planet. We'll map it within hours,
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have the maps disseminated out to the major universities.
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It turns out that 90 percent of all the oceanographic intellect
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in this country are at 12 universities. They're all on I-2.
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We can then build a command center.
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This is a remote center at the University of Washington.
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She's talking to the pilot. She's 5,000 miles away, but she's assumed command.
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But the beauty of this, too, is we can then disseminate it to children.
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We can disseminate.
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They can follow this expedition. I've started a program --
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where are you Jim? Jim Young who helped me start a program
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called the Jason Project. More recently, we've started a program
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with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America,
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so that we can use exploration,
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and the excitement of live exploration, to motivate them and excite them
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and then give them what they're already ready for.
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I would not let an adult drive my robot.
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You don't have enough gaming experience.
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But I will let a kid with no license take over control of my vehicle system.
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(Applause)
16:35
Because we want to create --
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we want to create the classroom of tomorrow.
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We have stiff competition and we need to motivate and it's all being done.
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You win or lose an engineer or a scientist by eighth grade.
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The game is not over -- it's over by the eighth grade, it's not beginning.
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We need to be not only proud of our universities.
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We need to be proud of our middle schools.
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And when we have the best middle schools in the world,
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we'll have the best kids pumped out of that system, let me tell you.
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Because this is what we want. This is what we want.
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This is a young lady, not watching a football game,
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not watching a basketball game.
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Watching exploration live from thousands of miles away,
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and it's just dawning on her what she's seeing.
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And when you get a jaw drop, you can inform.
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You can put so much information into that mind, it's in full [receiving] mode.
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(Applause)
17:27
This, I hope, will be a future engineer
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or a future scientist in the battle for truth.
17:34
And my final question, my final question --
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why are we not looking at moving out onto the sea?
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Why do we have programs to build habitation on Mars,
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and we have programs to look at colonizing the moon,
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but we do not have a program looking at how we colonize our own planet?
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And the technology is at hand.
17:56
Thank you very much.
17:58
(Applause)
18:00

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About the Speaker:

Robert Ballard - Oceanographer
On more than 120 deep-sea expeditions, Robert Ballard has made many major natural discoveries, such as the deep-sea vents. Oh, and he found the Titanic.

Why you should listen

From an early age, Robert Ballard was intrigued by the deep. He's perhaps best-known for his work in underwater archaeology; in addition to Titanic, he has found the wrecks of the Bismarck, the USS Yorktown, the nuclear sub Thresher (on a top-secret mission for the Navy -- for which the Titanic was his cover story) and John F. Kennedy's PT-109.

His contributions to our scientific knowledge of the ocean is just as awe-inspiring. He was in the first team of humans to view the deep-sea vents, and to understand how life can not only survive but thrive in these deep black waters, under extreme pressure and at extreme temperature.

He's also a powerful storyteller and a passionate scientific educator. He founded the Institute for Exploration and has pioneered distance learning in classrooms around the world. Through his JASON Project, 1.7 million students a year join scientists virtually as they experience the thrill of exploration and discovery.

More profile about the speaker
Robert Ballard | Speaker | TED.com