Thursday, August 27, 2009

plumbing the depths

Humans, despite our obvious shortcomings, are phenomenally good at pushing ourselves outside our comfort zone in search of larger, often obscure meanings. The elasticity of both the mind and body continually punch holes in the gypsum board of cultural history and reach through to the unknown. Michel Siffre is a favorite and recently the voyage made by Jacques Piccard & Lt. Don Walsh has floated past and captured the old imagi-nathan.

On January 23, 1960, Piccard and Walsh, made a dive in the Trieste to the deepest known point on Earth. The team descended 35,810 ft (10,916 m) to Challenger Deep. Piccard and Walsh sat in a 6-ft-diameter (1.8-m) steel bubble tucked underneath an enormous tank of gasoline (a buoyant fluid that does not compress) while the vessel made the a five-hour dive to the ocean floor. The Trieste provided completely independent life support, with a closed-circuit rebreather that used soda-lime to scrub CO2 from the air. Power was provided by batteries.
As the sphere passed 9,000 feet the thick plexiglass window suddenly cracked, shaking the entire sphere, but remaining water tight. The two men spent 20 minutes on the ocean floor, eating chocolate bars and staring out into the deep sea, lit up by quartz-arc light bulbs, watching small fish swim by.

This is the only time that humans have been this deep. In the years since no one has come within 10,000 feet of their record.

Interestingly enough the depths of the ocean below 1000 meters form the largest habitat on the planet by volume and also happens to be the least explored. Recently a remotely operated submersible off the coast of California spent a few hours in this zone and came back with a treasure trove of new species. The earth is fantastically thick with life, thicker than we can ever imagine due to our limited spatial and temporal scale. From the film of bacteria, yeast, and spores that coat every surface on the planet to the giants of the deep that we dismiss as myth without ever having taken a peek into their world. Here's to our constant (and increasingly forgotten) companion, the unknown.

1 comment:

Bobby said...

Have you read any Stuart Kauffman? I'm reading At Home in the Universe right now and your talk of life being everywhere reminded me of it. He talks about self-organization being just as important as evolutionary selection in life, and that as a result life is really should be more expected than not.

I like that those guys went another 26,000 feet after their window cracked. That's serious balls.