Ballard talks oceanography

Robert Ballard talked to over 200 Yalies and New Haven community members about the life of a scientist-explorer Thursday afternoon.
Robert Ballard talked to over 200 Yalies and New Haven community members about the life of a scientist-explorer Thursday afternoon. Photo by Joyce Xi.

When Titanic discoverer Robert Ballad opened his Alan Tetelman Lecture Thursday afternoon, he made it immediately clear that he was an explorer.

The 70-year-old oceanographer and explorer paced back and forth, ascended the staircase and interacted with the audience throughout the talk he delivered at the Yale Center for British Art lecture hall. Never at home in one place onstage, the discoverer of the Titanic and other shipwrecks described his life’s many pursuits to an audience of over 200 Yalies and members of the New Haven community. Jonathan Edwards College Master Penelope Laurans, who introduced Ballard, said she had spent over two years tracking the explorer down.

“He’s a hunter himself, and I finally hunted him down,” she said.

The reception of audience members, almost all of whom stayed after the lecture for a Q&A session with the oceanographer, showed that Ballard was well worth the wait.

Those expecting a talk on the oft-repeated history of the Unsinkable Ship were greeted with an engaging, discursive discourse. Ballard, who has given a TED talk in the past, shed light on the life of a scientist-explorer. He touched on many topics related to science and the sea, using slideshow images to illustrate his adventures in the uncharted waters he has quite literally mapped.

Grace Liu ’16 said she expected Ballard’s talk to focus primarily on the Titanic, but was surprised by his lecture’s broad scope.

“I actually love science, so the way [Ballard] synthesized archaeology, geology and education was really fascinating and exciting for me,” she said.

Ballard’s adventuresome spirit­ — both nautical and academic — was on display during the lecture. Ballard credited this spirit to a childhood spent near the coast of San Diego and steeped in works like Jules Vernes’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.” His passion for geology was visible as he explained the theory of plate tectonics. “The earth is made of pieces,” he said, comparing them to a “wonderful, synchronized ballet.”

Ballard proceeded to show some of the finds he and his crew had made during his time on the high seas. Rapt listeners watched as Ballard projected pictures of him and his crew holding strange and exotic forms of sea life discovered during his submarine voyages. One such image depicted what appeared to be a clam. The next slide showed the creature’s interior — filled with something resembling red marmalade — which Ballard said was similar in substance to “human blood.” Later in the talk he showed the preserved wooden hull of a ship he and his crew had discovered at the bottom of the oxygenless Black Sea. Gasps filled the lecture hall as audience members observed the well-preserved state of the hull.

Although the Titanic remains Ballard’s most famous discovery, he spent little time discussing the ship’s excavation. He showed a few pictures of the Titanic’s sunken hull, which was covered in “rusticles,” a neologism coined by Ballard and now included in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Ballard said his legacy extends beyond oceanography and discused his forays into education.

After receiving over 16,000 letters from children after his discovery of the Titanic, Ballard said he saw a golden opportunity to inspire students. Ballard said his desire as an explorer and an educator is to “go where no one has gone before.” In view of the deplorable state of the American educational system, especially in the sciences, Ballard established the JASON project.

Named after the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, the JASON project aims to get kids interested in the fields of engineering, geology and science. Ballard also focuses on fostering the growth of female participation in STEM — his submarine crew now is split almost evenly between the two genders, and his successor will be a female crew member. 
America, he said, must take “a new approach to education,” adding that he hopes students will aspire to follow in the footsteps of his crew members.

David Wells ’58 endowed the Tetelman Lecture Series in memory of his friend Alan Tetelman ’58 GRD ’61.

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