Broad's Brush

In light of major events like the Mars probe landing, it is difficult to turn our eyes from the promise and possibility of the heavens above, until you've learned the beautiful complexities of the world beneath our seas; a world that science writer William J. Broad descriptively documents with the truth of a historian and the journalistic evidence of his own experience in his new book The Universe Below.Broad is a science writer for the New York Times, where he co-authored two Pulitzer Prize-winning stories looking to the skies. But in 1985, oceanographer Robert D. Ballard discovered and soon explored the ship-wrecked Titanic ocean-liner more than two miles below the Atlantic's surface. Broad's head bowed with piqued interest not only of the discovery itself but what catalyzed it-the technologies of cold warfare. In The Universe Below, Broad focuses on the dark waters of our oceans, where discoveries of both the new and the old are opening our eyes to the deep's enormous importance and shaping of consequence. Broad will speak locally this week on two different occasions, discussing oceanic insights with members of the public.Reached at his New York home, Broad told Coast Weekly, that deep sea science owes a great debt of gratitude to the military, for it was Alvin, a submersible created by the Navy, that made the awe-inspiring discovery of the submerged Titanic possible. The technologies born from the hate and fear of lurking enemies are now, says Broad, aiding the exponential growth of a relatively infantile but maturing science. It is a change of tides Broad calls the "peace dividend."According to Broad, the research and technology the armed forces of the world amassed, including deep sea surveillance, deep roaming robots and submersibles, and satellite-aided topographic maps of ocean floors to name just a few, are now in the hands of civilians. Broad makes the case that deep technologies-once a power of defense-have now become the tools of discovery with boundless possibilities and interests as broad as the sea is wide. Life scientists discover unimaginable ecosystems with alien life forms. Biochemists find almost invincible enzymes which are unlocking doors to genetics research. The fishing community pulls up new stocks of fish in their nets. Anthropologists unveil histories thought lost forever in a liquid graveyard. And, of course, large industrialists seek the deep's resource-rich sea floor.With each discovery new inquisitive parties rush to find out how the deep sea can benefit them. Broad calls this race "helter skelter" but explains that despite the seeming chaos, the "peace dividend" has brought on a "civil inquiry," as the uncontrollable factors of the deep force people to push for unified efforts.In the epilogue of The Universe Below Broad writes, "The benefits of wide exploitation of the deep have to be weighed carefully against such risks as deep pollution and species eradication, which are very difficult to anticipate given our general ignorance about the deep sea. If history is any guide, a lopsided race will be run between development and the comprehension of its repercussions."And follows powerfully, "But history cannot be the guide. The deep is the one place on the planet where consequences are inescapable." What is most profound about this book, though, is Broad's narrative style. The objective depiction of his own observations and experience in the deep will bring you to fall in love with it just as his love developed. For example, Broad traveled 1.5 miles below the Pacific Ocean off the Oregon coast in a submersible with two others. "I was cramped and scaredÉthe submersible was filled with nervous tension," Broad says of his experience. "But soon I was blown away by the eerie darkness and the bursts of bioluminescent creatures. You just want to soak it all up. "I experienced a kind of baptism down there that no one tells you about," Broad says with wonder. "When I came up, nothing was the same againÉEven rain became just a temporary dislocation of the ocean in the atmosphere." In Below, Broad, an outsider, reminds us that the Monterey Bay, under thick layers of tourism's dominant shroud, is the heart of our community. Below the surface of the Bay's water lies the Monterey Canyon, a deep gorge of the continental shelf, dropping miles below sea level unusually close to the coast. "The contours of the Monterey Canyon, as well as its location on the California coast, make it an intersection of complex winds, currents, and nutrient flows that feed a cornucopia of life," Broad writes. "The convenient accessibility of the canyon and the great biodiversity emerging from it, makes the Monterey Bay ideal for all-encompasing deep sea research," Broad says.The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), the leader in deep-sea studies, researches an area of newly discovered interest-the mid-level dark waters, where, Broad learned, "oceanographers in their rush to the bottom had overlooked perhaps one-third of the sea's large fauna." The Universe Below shatters our sense of place in this world.


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