Presumably the Bismarck helped you, too, in some ways, didn’t it?
The Bismarck helped with the momentum. It showed it wasn’t luck. I am now embarked upon several major programs of that ilk, that are being funded by National Geographic. I can’t wait to get started. I am looking into the future, not the past. I can’t wait to get going in the next project.
To the general public, you are probably best known as the scientist who finds the wrecks of famous ships. How do you see yourself?
Robert Ballard: I think of myself as an explorer. I’m very romantic. I grew up as a child reading stories of Marco Polo and Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I think throughout man’s history, there have been explorers. A lot of people think there is no longer a place for them to live. There is, particularly in the ocean. So that’s what I am.
Was this always your interest? What kind of books did you like to read when you were a kid?
Robert Ballard: Adventure books. Generally a mix between fiction and non-fiction. I loved The Travels of Marco Polo. It amazed me how he would walk — maybe 30 miles a day is what a human being can walk back then — and he would go from one world to another world. And the one world he could go to was like Eden, an incredibly wonderful place, and down the road was Hell. And how there was such diversity on our planet. Now you find McDonald’s everywhere. But there was a diversity of the human species that mimicked other life. The true beauty of this planet is its diversity, not its sameness. So Marco Polo just opened up my eyes to the diversity of the human experience. Jules Verne opened me up to the fantasies of the time machine. I loved 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Captain Nemo! Here was a person who built his own submarine, using advanced technology, nuclear energy before anyone even knew that it existed. He was a technologist, but he was an adventurer. He explored beneath the sea. He had a giant window, and he saw the sea through that window, and that’s exactly what I’m doing. I always had this dream of being inside his ship, the Nautilus. I even went to Disneyland and rode it. I lived near Disneyland, and that had a lot of impact on me, I’m sure.
Some people believe that from birth their lives are pre-destined. When you were growing up, what did you think you wanted to be?
Robert Ballard: What I am. A high-tech, modern-day Captain Nemo. Absolutely no doubt about it. I always wanted to do what I’m doing, as long as I can remember. All kids dream a marvelous images of what they want to do. But then society tells them they can’t do it. I didn’t listen. I wanted to live my dream. So I broke it up into little bite-sized pieces.
Where did you grow up?
Robert Ballard: San Diego. Our family was the first family to grow up in the Claremont development. There were 40 houses. I used to go and hunt tarantulas with BB guns. San Diego was an incredible place to be introduced to the sea, back in the late ’40s, early ’50s.
I used to love to go down to tidal pools. What an adventure a tidal pool is! The tide comes in, covers the rocks, and then it goes away, and it traps life from the sea, and they can’t get away. It’s like a nature-made aquarium. You look around and there’s fish, crabs and all sorts of things. Then they get washed away and in twelve hours there will be a new aquarium. I loved tidal pools. I also loved the tide, when it would come in, and you’d find adventure washed up on your shore. Like a Robinson Crusoe walking along, and seeing a float that had come from Japan, that had crossed the Pacific Ocean, a third of our planet, and just washed up at your feet. It was so exciting, I couldn’t wait to go and walk the tide line and see what treasures were waiting for me.
Explorers are, to some extent, risk takers. As a child, did you enjoy taking risks and having adventures, like Captain Nemo?
Robert Ballard: Oh, yes. I think all kids live on the edge, until they are beaten back from it. I think all kids are born explorers. All kids are born scientists. All kids ask “Why?” The first dialogue you’ll ever have with your children begins, “But why?” And then you’ll explain. And they’ll say, “But why?” That “why?” can take you all the way back to the origin of the universe. I think people are born curious, and they have it pounded out of them. I was in an environment that encouraged it, not discouraged it.
Did your teachers recognize that you had a special talent? Did any of them take a real interest in you?
Robert Ballard: To most of my teachers I was just a pain in the neck. I was full of energy. I was a bubbly vat of energy. I was hyperactive and I was all over the place, and that can be disruptive. I can be very disruptive. So most people would rather say, “Slow that guy down or get him out of here.” But then, fortunately, there is always one out of a hundred teachers who loves that characteristic about a person, and those are the people that always encouraged me. All through my life, I can point to someone at a critical point, when I was ready to quit, who said, “Keep it up.” That I respected. You’re always going to be criticized if you’re a “doer.” You have to make sure you know who to listen to. You need to pick out certain people who you have great respect for, and listen to them. I’ve always had those mentors throughout my life, whether it was in the Navy, business, academia — even in sports — that I listened to.
Let’s start with academia. What did you really expect and what did you get?
Robert Ballard: I learned how to think. I learned how to problem-solve. I learned how to bust things up and develop a logic tree. Classic example was, someone asked me, “How many barbers are there in the United States?” Now how would you dissect that question? You can calculate it, if you just run a number. You take the population of the United States, 250 million, you cut it in half, because half are women. Then you say, how many of those would have a haircut? Well, one year-olds don’t. How many haircuts do you have in a year? How many haircuts can a barber give in a day? Before you know it, the number spits out: the right answer, or doggone close. So I learned how to order my thoughts, and most important, learned how to develop a plan. I discovered the power of a plan. If you can plan it out, and it seems logical to you, you can do it. And that was the secret to success.
You are also the director of the Center for Marine Exploration at Woods Hole Oceanographic Center. What kinds of degrees do you have?
Robert Ballard: I have several different degrees. I went to the University of California, Santa Barbara, right on the ocean. Beautiful place, I took two degrees there. Majored in chemistry and geology and I minored in math and physics. So I got a very good basis in the physical sciences. When I was at Santa Barbara, I went into the Army ROTC program, so I had an Army commission. My graduate degrees are in geology and geophysics. When I finished my undergraduate degree in 1965, I went off to graduate school at the University of Hawaii Institute of Geophysics. I trained porpoises and whales to make a living. I loved that. Then I transferred to the University of Southern California, and while at the University of Southern California, I was called into the military, during Vietnam. I requested to be transferred to a branch of service that would utilize my skills in oceanography. They accepted it and Army intelligence transferred me into the United States Navy.
When the Navy got you, they got a trained marine geologist. They sent you to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. What was that like? What did they put you to work doing?
Robert Ballard: Woods Hole is the most incredible organization I have ever worked with. You don’t work for it, you work with it. Woods Hole is the wild west underwater, as far as I’m concerned. It’s a non-profit, but private, institution. When you first come here, they sort of put two guns to your head. One is: up or out on the tenure track. You start here as a young Ph.D., and then you have eight or ten years to make tenure. Eighty percent don’t make it. I got tenure in 1980. Now, once you get tenure, they take one gun away, but that other one is always there, and that means you have to fund yourself. They don’t fund me; I pay them to be here. I rent their flag, if you will. I do expeditions under their name, but I have to raise the money, so I have to be an entrepreneur.
When you first went there, the Navy was paying your salary, right?
Robert Ballard: I was the Navy’s liaison officer for the first three of my 23 years at Woods Hole. I thought I had finished my Navy career in 1970, when I went back to graduate school to finish my Ph.D. I came back aboard Woods Hole as a scientist, but the Navy put be back in several years ago. I’m a commander in the United States Navy.
Did the Navy put you to work experimenting with new equipment? Where did you begin experimenting? Was it then?
Robert Ballard: No. My first brush with exploration technology was when I was in high school. My father helped me get a job at North American Aviation, in a new budding group called the Ocean Systems Group. They were bidding on a contract to build a submarine for the academic community. This was 1962, and that submarine was ALVIN. I was 19 years old, and I was able to actually work as a small person, a little cog in a big machine. They didn’t get the contract, but that was my introduction to deep submergence. The first time that I ever dove in a submarine was as a naval officer here at Woods Hole. When I left the Navy and got my doctorate, I was still in the ALVIN program. I’ve continued to dive, to this day.
When you began diving in ALVIN with the Navy, what was the purpose of those dives? Were you taking that submarine down to see if it would crack in two, or catch on fire? Was this a dangerous thing?
Robert Ballard: In the early years of the ALVIN program there was a lot of danger. The first years of deep submergence were to de-bug it, and make it work as a system, so it became routine. In the early years, there was a lot of apprehension about a deep dive: Was everything going to work? Were you going to come back? As you did it over and over again, it became real routine.
Like the space shuttle, you could never lose sight of the fact that you were doing something dangerous. It may be apparently routine, but if you mess up, it will bite you, and it has over the years. I had a fire once — not in ALVIN, in a French bathyscaphe — at 9,000 feet, and almost died. I crashed into the side of a volcano at 20,000 feet and almost died. I got stuck in a crack for hours and almost died. Now I don’t mean that it’s really risky. It’s probably safer than flying from here to La Guardia. Those planes fall out of the sky, and they crash and burn, and I suspect more people per hours have actually died in airplanes than in deep submergence. Only one person has ever died in a deep submersible, only one.
Up to the 1980s, your expeditions were all about searching for scientific data. You made discoveries that were helpful in solving certain scientific problems. You went after the famous sunken ships after you developed the ARGO/JASON system. What was the reason for that change?
Robert Ballard: I used ALVIN until I was convinced that there was a better mouse trap. We were starting to reach diminishing returns with our technology. I was up for tenure; it was a cross-roads in my life. I wanted to get out and stand back and look at it and think about it. Otherwise, I’d just keep going on without any thought. So I said, I’m going to get out of the submarine and decompress. I’m going to not dive for a year, I’m going to go to Stanford and sit on a mountain and think about it.
So in 1980, I was teaching geophysics at Stanford as a sabbatical. That’s when I dreamed up the ARGO/JASON system. Then I had to come back and convince someone to fund it, which is a story unto itself. It did not occur the way it was supposed to occur, because things never occur the way they’re supposed to occur.
But I finally convinced a person, the Secretary of the Navy, John Lehman, that he ought to bet on me, and he did. The Navy funded the ARGO/JASON system. He was that type of person I described, who knew enough, just looking me in the eye. I sent the right message to him, and he said, “Do it.”
What do you think the message was that he received, as the representative of the Navy?
Robert Ballard: I had paid my dues, and I had succeeded. I knew what I was talking about. I was sincerely committed to it. I really wanted to do it, it was important, and I could do it. So he said, “You can’t ask for much more, go do it.” He authorized the program, and I went and did it.
From the standpoint of advancing scientific knowledge, which of your accomplishments are you most proud of?
Robert Ballard: I would say the discovery of the hydrothermal vents off the Galápagos Islands. That really turned science upside down. Until that time, there were a lot of things we didn’t know about the ocean. We didn’t know why it was salty. We didn’t know why it had the chemistry that it had.
The most obvious way minerals come into the sea is from rivers. The problem is: when you compare a bucket of water from the ocean with a bucket of water from a major river like the Amazon, the chemistries don’t make sense. It wasn’t until we found these underwater hot thermal springs that we discovered the ocean itself is going inside the earth and out every six million years. The whole volume of the world’s oceans actually goes inside the earth, and we never knew that. Once we learned that, we could finally make sense of the chemistry of the sea, and make all of our mass balance equations balance for the first time. That was exciting.
Plus the animals that we found living in these hot springs turned the world upside down. We discovered the first major ecosystem ever found that does not live off the energy of the sun, but the energy of the earth itself. This changes all those thoughts about how life began on our planet. It changes the thoughts about the potential for life on other planets. You don’t have to have a sun nearby. You can live off the energy of the planet itself. It’s called chemosynthesis. Little bacteria, thermophilic bacteria, figured out how to replicate photosynthesis in the dark, how to fix carbon and start a food chain.
What do these creatures look like?
Robert Ballard: Pretty gross, actually. There are worms that are eight feet long and, if you cut them, they bleed like a human. There are clams that are a foot across but when you open them, they look like liver. Bizarre fish. It’s like that movie where they descended into a volcano and found another world, but this was real.
In some of your expeditions, you also gained certain knowledge about earthquakes.
Robert Ballard: That’s right. We were the first group to ever enter the largest mountain range on our planet, the Mid-Ocean Ridge. This mountain range covers 23 percent of the earth’s total surface area. Almost a quarter of our planet is one mountain range, and we didn’t even know it existed in its totality until 1960. We had landed on the moon before we had entered this mountain range on earth in 1973. I was fortunate to be one of the first human beings to go into this mountain range.
How deep down was that, and what did you find there?
Robert Ballard: You have to go down about eight to nine thousand feet to enter a deep valley that’s called the Rift Valley. In the Atlantic Ocean, it’s called the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. You enter the mountain range, go down into this deep valley, and on the floor of this valley are hundreds and hundreds of active volcanoes. There are more earthquakes taking place in the adjoining fault systems of this mountain range than all the earthquakes on land by a factor of probably ten or 100. There are many more volcanoes, belching out molten lava, underneath the ocean than above. But no one knew that. No one had ever gone down there.
Did they belch when you were down there?
Robert Ballard: If they did, we’d be dead. It’s like Hawaii; you can go there even though there are recent volcanoes. We have yet to observe one erupt. We know they erupt because we see their products. We know when they’re erupting, because we can hear them on our seismic networks. Fortunately we haven’t been there when one erupted. There was an expedition recently, where one erupted and the ship vanished. Everyone died. So you’ve got to be careful around these things.
Did you find any information that would help you predict when we’re going to have earthquakes here?
Robert Ballard: The whole objective of earth science, is to understand the earth. I view the earth as a living organism. Now it’s very difficult for normal people to view the earth as alive. Let’s say you were interviewing a butterfly — or a Mayfly. A Mayfly lives for four or five days. Say that Mayfly was standing on the branch of a giant Sequoia tree in California, which lives for thousands of years. If you were to ask that Mayfly, “Do you perceive this branch that you are standing on as being alive?” The Mayfly would say, “Of course not. I’ve been here my entire life, four days, and the branch hasn’t done a doggone thing.” Yet when you look at the tree in our context, it is very much alive. It started with a seed, and it grew. Well, the earth is very much like that tree, and mankind is very much like that Mayfly. If we are lucky, we will live a hundred years. We are standing on a planet that was born four and a half billion years ago. It looked very different when it was born; it evolved and has changed. Africa used to be just outside the window here. Morocco was connected to Cape Cod. Beneath this building are rocks from Africa. It’s hard to imagine that. But if you were to sit on the moon, and look at the earth and blink your eyes once every million years, it would come blossoming to life.
So what we, as scientists, try to do, is to look at its four and one-half billion-year history and see it start as a child, and grow up and become a young adolescent. Some day the earth will probably die, like Mars did, and Venus did, but right now it’s a thriving adult. Given that view of the earth as a living, thriving organism, our science, and what we try to do underwater, is to see how the earth does its thing. What it does in this mountain range is create its outer skin, the lithosphere. It does it very systematically.
You’ve invented new systems to make these discoveries. Would you list those among your accomplishments?
Robert Ballard: There are two aspects of my life as an explorer. You want to go explore, but you need the tools to explore. In my particular field, you can’t go down to Sears and Roebuck and buy them. General Motors doesn’t build my robots. I have to develop my tools myself. So half of my life is exploring, and the other half is building tools to do it better the next time.
The major innovation that we have developed is to move away from manned exploration, to teleoperated exploration, or remote presence. There has always been this debate in space: do you send an astronaut, or do you send an unmanned space probe? We send a hybrid of both. It’s not manned and it’s not unmanned. A teleoperated system is robot-controlled, on a second-by-second basis, by human beings. But the human isn’t physically there. The average depth of the ocean is 12,000 feet; 50 percent is deeper, 50 percent is shallower. The Titanic, for example, sits at 12,000 feet. It took me two and a half hours to get to the Titanic in the morning, and two and a half hours to get home at night. I had to commute five hours a day to work, and I was only allowed to work for three hours before I had to go back up. What we’ve done is develop robots that can go down and stay down. They are connected to humans, by a fiber optic tether, and that permits us to explore 24 hours a day. That’s been my major technological contribution: to develop the first full remotely operated robotic systems for deep sea exploration.
Let’s talk about your first project. This was the one where you explored that mountain range. You found a new form of life down there. It was a very important expedition. Who did you have to go to, to talk to, and convince?
Robert Ballard: I’ll never forget that day. Deep submersibles were evolving as a technology, but they hadn’t been accepted yet. The geophysical community, the big gurus, viewed it as a toy, a plaything that couldn’t possibly do anything important, because it hadn’t done anything important up to that point. I remember that the National Academy of Sciences, which is a pretty high-falutin’ outfit, had a meeting in Princeton in the early 1970s review our understanding of our planet. The plate tectonic theory had just blasted all over the countryside. It was exciting, but they needed a new phase in higher detail.
I was a graduate student and K. O. Emery, my mentor, had me present to this august body. Very scary. My knees were knocking. These were all the big gods of the earth. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Princeton, but they have the old classrooms that are just like an operating pit. You stand there and you look up, and it’s sort of intimidating. I got done and a very preeminent scientist — I won’t say who he is, because he is still very preeminent — stood up and said, “That’s cute, but tell me one significant thing a manned submersible has ever done.” We hadn’t. I didn’t have an answer. I was standing there frozen, and another colleague stood up, and he said “That isn’t the problem. The technology is not at fault; we haven’t dreamed of a way of using them.” Out of that came Project Famous, and the first manned expedition.
Your dream encompassed the kind of equipment that you were developing. Right?
Robert Ballard: Manned submersibles are a part of the total thing we had to work on. You can’t run around the planet with a manned submersible and a flashlight. You have to go to just the right spot, one where the questions are very important. And if you can answer your questions there, it explains thousands and thousands of square miles of real estate. That’s what we had to learn how to do: to focus that technology on the right spot.
How did you sell your ideas? Did you tell scientists who might be interested, “You may have thought you couldn’t get down that far, but I’ve got an invention here, that will allow you to do that.”
Robert Ballard: Salesmanship is a critical part of accomplishment in any field. You have to look people in the eye and not blink when you say you can do it. A really good leader, a really good manager, a good decision maker, doesn’t know the details, can’t necessarily follow a specialist through a labyrinth of explanations, but they listen. They get a feeling about whether people are educated and know what they’re doing. Ultimately they have to look the person in the eye and say, “I think this person can do it.” You must be able to transmit to them, through body language, through whatever, that you are confident, you’ve thought it out, you know what you are going to do, and you will take the risks, professionally.
The more you build your reputation, the more they know how much you are putting at risk. “He wouldn’t do this if he didn’t think he could do it.” The first time is difficult, because you don’t have any track record. They say, “Who is this person?” I gave my presentation, we went and we did it, and then we went and did another one. Finally you build up a reputation.
What had you invented that helped make that first expedition successful?
Robert Ballard: Back in Project Famous, I made my first major scientific contribution. Geologists had learned how to map on land. They learned how to do their thing mapping that part of the planet that sticks above water, and they had been doing it for hundreds of years, and they had perfected it. It’s called field mapping. But no one had ever applied it underwater. It’s a totally different planet when you go underneath the sea. You are going to another planet that is more hostile than Mars and the moon. You can’t get out, you can’t walk around, the pressures will kill you. The temperatures are freezing, and it’s totally dark. It’s a lot easier to walk around on the moon and work than it is down there. So you had to take that way of doing things and “marine-ize” it, and make it work underwater so that people were comfortable with the quality of the data that you were collecting. And that’s what I did. I was the first scientist to field map underwater.
You say working in darkness was a problem. How did you solve that problem?
Robert Ballard: Fortunately, I can visualize in three-dimensions. I think any good field mapper can look at a map and see the Grand Canyon in three dimensions. You conceptualize, because you can’t see more than 30 or 40 feet under the ocean. So you must have a complete sense of reference. I don’t know whether that’s a gift, a compass that’s built into your brain, like a bird’s ability to migrate. I can know where north, south, east and west is at all times. I can remember where I was, and I can integrate it all in my mind. So when I go down there, I’m not lost. I’m very comfortable in total darkness with just a flashlight. It’s like working in the Rocky Mountains at night in a snowstorm from a helicopter with a spotlight. You can develop that skill. Certain people have that three-dimensional skill set.
What about ANGUS, the Acoustically Navigated Geological Underwater Survey? Wasn’t ANGUS a way of taking pictures down there?
Robert Ballard: ANGUS was the first vehicle I built with “staying power.” Fundamentally, I’m an observational scientist. I look, I think about what I look at, and I explain it. I’m not a numerical scientist, although I use numbers. I’m basically relying on a Mark I eyeball. Sixty-five percent of the brain processes visual information. We are visual creatures. I look and I try to think about what I see, and explain it. Imagine standing on the moon, and beginning a trip towards a small object in this mountain range. First you see the earth, then you see the continent, then you see the ocean, and if you go under the ocean you see a mountain range, and you are homing in. You have to have all of the technologies that can zoom in, and not get lost each time you change the power on the microscope. You make that transition. So finally, when you get down there in total darkness, and you are looking out your window, you know exactly where on the planet you are, and why that is the key thing to look at. That’s what I do.
What other equipment did you invent that helped you do that?
Robert Ballard: Because I’m a visual creature, ANGUS has the capability to give me massive images. Initially, it was sort of a wind-up toy. You wound up this camera so to speak, and it could take 16,000 photographs at one lowering. I would drop it down, and then for 12 to 14 hours, I would tow it through the valley, bring it up, process all the film, and then look at all the pictures. All those images were my windows into the deep sea. But it was frustrating because the vehicle didn’t have any intelligence, it just took pictures. If I came across something that was really important, I didn’t know about it until 14 hours later, so the vehicle just kept on going, and took awful pictures that weren’t much value. That’s why I developed ARGO. Which was “give it to me now.” I want it in real-time. I want to make decisions now.
Science is very much like the game of Clue. Remember that? “The butler did it in the library with the candlestick.” The game of Clue was to get the answer with the minimum amount of clues. Clues are expensive in science, and scientists have finite resources. Can you figure it out with the minimum amount of time and money, and get the answer? We want to optimize our clue gathering. So when we put our robot down we want to be thinking “No, stop. Turn left. No, turn right.” We want to be in charge., because we don’t want to just take a massive look. We want to do a surgical look and get the treasure. It’s sort of like Dungeons and Dragons. Get in there, and find the treasure box, and open it before anyone else can. That’s the game.
How does ARGO do that? I mean, do you give the instruction?
Robert Ballard: With ARGO, I have two advantages over ALVIN and ANGUS. ALVIN, I had to get inside of, and make this journey to work for three hours, with no friends along to say, well, what do you think? No person knows everything. No person can solve a problem alone. If it’s worth solving, you need help. You want that help all around you, but they wouldn’t fit inside the submarine. So you had to go back and explain things. It was very time consuming, very inefficient. So I built a window up on the surface where I could bring all my friends, and we could look through the window and say, “What do you think?” Not only could I have a lot of people looking through the window with me, I could look through the window 24 hours a day. It was cheaper and it was more comfortable. I had the computers, charts, all sorts of things at my disposal. I had a library behind me, to go and look for facts real quick if I was stumped. I had a video archive. I could call up images and say, “Yeah, that’s it.” You can’t cram that inside a little submarine.
ANGUS couldn’t react in real time, there was a big lag. ARGO has the staying power of ANGUS, but it has the human presence of the submarine, so you can sit there and, as you are going along and you are just about to lose it, you go “Turn”. You can control the robot and get it back on track, so its very efficient. The problem is, it’s a data monster. It works 24 hours a day, and you have to go sleep. You have to devise a team that can work together so there is a corporate memory and you don’t repeat one another. That’s the excitement we are in now. How do you handle a machine that’s like HAL in 2001,. How do you handle something that is almost smarter than you are? That’s where we are right now.
Is that a real possibility?
Robert Ballard: We’re there. Our machines are working harder than we are. They don’t have the element of human frailty. They don’t sleep — I do. They are impatient machines. They say “Get up! Wake up, I’ve got all sorts of things I want to talk to you about.”
You’re 48 now. What are you planning to do in the next 48 years?
Robert Ballard: Survive. I have so many things that I want to do. I have my own company that builds robots. I want to be a successful businessman. You only come on this planet once, so I’m trying to live six or seven lives simultaneously, just in case I don’t get to come back. I like all aspects of life. I love writing. I just wrote my first spy thriller. That was a lot of fun. I started doing children’s books, because I love children. We did the Jason Project for kids. I’m still a naval officer, very proud of that. I just recently got married, and I’m all excited about that. There are a million things to do.
Looking back on those first 48 years, if you will, there was some bad luck, too. There were some tragedies.
Robert Ballard: Yes, I lost my boy. I think that whenever things are going great, you are going to get zinged. I couldn’t have been at a higher point in my life. I had already found the Titanic. I was able to add to that point, when I found the Bismarck. Then to have my boy die, who had been with me for three years at sea. I went to the bottom.
How did he die?
Robert Ballard: He died in a car accident. He had been with me in tough, dangerous settings. He worked the deck in storms, where a father wants to not let his son be out there, but he can’t say that, because he’s got to be out there with everyone else, and to just be terrified that he was going to get injured in the heavy seas, with the heavy equipment. And then to have that all behind you, and take a sigh of relief that he is no longer at risk, and then to have him die the next week, when you weren’t looking, when you weren’t ready. It’s devastating. To try to make that a positive experience — for you, certainly not for him — but to make the most out of your son’s death is a big challenge.
What were some of your other setbacks along the way?
Robert Ballard: People not believing me. It’s getting a little easier, but it’s funny how people will say, “I don’t think you can do that.” Then you do it, and they say “That was great” and you say, “Well, I’ve got this other idea.” “Naw, I don’t think you can do that.” So you do it again.
When I said I was going to find the Titanic, no one believed it. When I said I was going to find the Bismarck, everyone believed it, and then I failed in my first attempt to find the Bismarck. So people expect you to succeed, but they don’t want to stick their own necks out, and so risk-taking can be very lonely at times. You know that classic saying, which is very true: “Failure is an orphan, but success has many fathers.” I’ll tell you, when I’m most at risk, I look around, and there are not a whole lot of people there. But as soon as I succeed, they say, “We were always there.” And I say, “Yeah, but 500 miles behind me.” You have to learn to accept that. You have to know that when it gets dicey, and there is a lot on the line, you are going to find out who your friends are, not at the party afterwards.
Did these setbacks reaffirm your direction in life, or give you second thoughts? Did you have doubts about your work, your abilities, or your style of living?
Robert Ballard: Yes. A massive failure causes you to rethink everything, but if you thought it out right in the first place, when you review the logic that sent you down that path, you say “Well, that’s pretty good logic. I’d better keep going.” I always said to my son, before he died, “If you stay in the game, it’s never over. It may be a bad inning, but if you don’t quit you can’t lose. You only lose when you quit. So hang in there, and you will succeed.” I am convinced that if you can think it out, and dream it, you can do it. It’s just a question of how much you want to do it. What life does is test your determination. That’s the important thing. Don’t give up. And guess what, you’ll make it.
What advice would you give to young people, just beginning their careers?
Robert Ballard: You have to build confidence. Most important, you have to like yourself. Not to be egotistic about it, but to come to grips with yourself. Most of the time you are growing up, people tell you what’s wrong with you. Your coach tells you, your parents tell you, the teachers tell you when they grade you. I think that that’s good in the early stages, because it helps you then develop skills. But at some point in your career, generally I think when you are in your teens, you look in a mirror and you have to say, despite all the bumps and warts, “I like that person I’m looking at, and let’s just do our best. ”
It’s that point, where you start to take what’s good about you and polish it like an apple. I think everyone is unique. We know that. The only way you find out what you are is by trying everything, and then at some point you take what you are, which is unique. Don’t ever try to mimic anybody, because you will only be second best. You can never outshine the thing you are trying to mimic, so don’t ever do that. Don’t idol worship. Finally, be yourself. Then you are going to be really unique and exciting. People are going to beat a path to your door if you polish your inner self.
I think Joseph Campbell summarized it: “Life is the act of becoming, you never arrive.” People plan a lifetime to climb Mount Everest, and they only stay up there five minutes. It isn’t the view they’re after, it’s the fact that they made it. It’s in the act of becoming that you learn about life. You learn about yourself. The only way you are going to discover that is to try. And I always say to a kid, “If you scale a mountain a thousand feet high and fall off of it, you are going to break your neck. So scale one a hundred thousand feet high. If you fall off it, you are still going to break your neck.” I believe that it’s just as difficult to do something easy as to do something difficult. You get up in the morning, you put on your pants, and you work till you go to bed at night. So shoot for a big one. There is no added risk in shooting for a tall mountain. But what’s so beautiful about a tall mountain is, when you get to the top of it, you can see over all the other smaller mountains, and you can see these other peaks. The most exciting thing about success is being able to meet the people on those other peaks, and learn how they got there. You’ll find that whether it’s in the arts, or science, or in sports, it’s still the climbing process. So there isn’t any specific mountain that’s unique. Don’t spend all your time trying to figure out which big mountain. Pick the closest one, and climb it.
You have indicated that, very soon now, you intend to make the biggest, most important climb of your whole career. What’s that all about?
Robert Ballard: I’m excited about my marriage. I’d say that’s the most important mountain, probably the tallest of all. Again, I revert back to Joseph Campbell. A person as an individual can only scale mountains so high. Man sees the world through a particular set of eyes. Woman sees it through a different set of eyes. It’s like binocular vision. You can’t see the world in stereo without both views — slightly different, both valid — that collectively show the world as you can never see it through one eye. To find your other half, that’s what your mate is all about. I’ve been lucky and done that, and now I want to see the world through that binocular view. I want to know what she thinks about everything, because the truth is in between.
Is there also a new scientific project in store for you?
Robert Ballard: I’ve got a lot of challenges right now, but I’m not driven by anything right now, other than my marriage. That’s as intellectual a challenge as any scientific challenge I can think of. I’m really homing in on that.
You’ve been doing some work with children. What’s the project called, and what’s it all about?
Robert Ballard: It came out of the Titanic experience, like so many things that changed my life. When I found volcanoes, and the hydrothermal system, I did well in the scientific community, but I was not flooded by letters from kids. The day I found the Titanic I started having thousands and thousands of pen pals: kids all around the world. Our book on the Titanic came out in eleven countries, and what we discovered was a fascination with high-tech adventure, at a time when children were dropping out of real science, not taking physics, not taking math. America’s scientific literacy was plummeting. We are now seventeenth in scientific literacy in just the Western world. We saw an opportunity. Why are kids writing me letters if they don’t like science? I’m a scientist. What I do is science. I need to communicate that to them. What’s exciting about what I do is the moment of discovery. Unfortunately, you can’t take kids down in your submarine, or out on your ships, in large quantities.
So we devised a project called the Jason Project. Remember that I am in an imaginary submarine at sea. I’m not down there, my robots are. I’m in my room. What if I built identical rooms and put them all over North America, and connected them by satellite? If a child entered one of these other rooms, they’d see what I see, when I see it. So I’ve built twelve of them. I went to teachers, and I said, give me your students, and bring them into this room, and I’ll take them on the expedition. We signed up 250,000 kids. We told the kids that they couldn’t get in the room unless they promised to study science for four months. We wrote a tough curriculum, in the physical sciences, where they’re not just studying math and physics and chemistry, but robotics, telecommunications, the language of science. They studied it, no problem. They wanted to get in that room. See, you have to think of math as wind sprints.
When I played college basketball, I’d practice for two hours, and just as I wanted to go to the locker room, the coach would say, “Give me 20 wind sprints.” “I don’t want to do 20 wind sprints.” And he would say, “Do you want to play in tomorrow’s game? Then you’d better do 20 wind sprints.” And I did those 20 wind sprints, which gave me the stamina to survive four quarters of basketball. You will never sell a kid on mental wind sprints. You’ve got to sell them on the game, then they’ll do the wind sprints. So what we wanted to do, is to show them what excitement exploration is, and sell them on exploration, on the quest for knowledge. Sell them on that, and how exciting it is and rewarding it is. And when you hook them, then they will go prepare themselves.
So every year, we mount an expedition somewhere in the world. This coming year, we are going to go to the Galápagos Islands, and the kids will go there live, through our technology base. But they don’t get to go unless they study science. It’s working. The first two years we had a half a million kids involved. And they are coming back. We are in our third year. They keep signing up for science. Lehigh University has joined the Jason network, and they are tracking the kids, and asking them the questions. We discovered that the excitement of exploration has no sex. It’s as exciting to boys as it is to girls. The most formative point in a child’s mind about science is between grades six through ten. Six through ten is when kids decide whether they are going to go into science or not, long before college. The game is over before they take their SATs. We’ve got the greatest university system in the world, but one of the worst pre-university systems in the world. I want to change that. And we are.
Great idea. Thank you, Dr. Ballard. It’s been fascinating.