Science Policy & Funding GeoFIZZ

A Life at Sea: A Q&A with Robert Ballard

A new memoir from the famed explorer dives into his underwater discoveries, his life with dyslexia, and the importance of communicating with the public.

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Robert Ballard—the man who found Titanic—has explored the ocean for more than 60 years with ships, submersibles, and remotely operated vehicles. Now, through the Ocean Exploration Trust, he continues to search the seas for archaeological wonders, geological oddities, and biological beasts.

His new memoir, Into the Deep, takes readers on a vivid tour of his adventures while diving into his struggles—and triumphs—as he navigated academia and the ocean without knowing he was dyslexic.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

 

Eos: How and when did you find out you were dyslexic?

Ballard: I didn’t know I was dyslexic until I was around 62 years old. I’m 79. There’s a beautiful book called The Dyslexic Advantage. I have an audio version, which is much easier for dyslexics. When I listened to it, I cried because it explained me to me for the first time in my life. I knew I was different, and now I understand that difference.

Eos: What advice do you have for those who struggle with dyslexia?

Ballard: The educational experience in many ways for a dyslexic is, How do you survive it? How do you cross through this desert? And fortunately, I had oases along the way, which were teachers that bet on my horse. The real key is surviving the teachers who would rather put you on drugs or would rather not have you in their classroom.

Eos: What can parents do?

Ballard: Early detection is really critical, and also being an advocate.

Eos: What can the education systems do better for children?

Ballard: Make sure that they don’t lose their self-esteem [and] that they don’t believe that they’re stupid. They’re not. They have a gift. We’re such visual creatures.

Eos: How have you come to view being dyslexic as an asset?

Ballard: I stare at things until I figure them out. You want eyes on the bottom [of the ocean], and that’s what us dyslexics are all about. I can stand in the middle of my command center, close my eyes and go there…without physically being there.

Eos: Like with Titanic?

Ballard: I wasn’t supposed to find the Titanic. I was on a top-secret mission financed by naval intelligence to look at a nuclear submarine [that sank with] nuclear weapons. I discovered that [the submarine hadn’t] just [imploded and sank to] the bottom. When I went to map it, I found that I could map three corners of it, but then there was a bit like a comet on the bottom of the ocean because the current…created a long debris trail. I said, “Well, wait a minute. Don’t look for the Titanic. Look for this long trail.” This is visual hunting.

Eos: And so you found the Titanic in 1985, for which you became famous! But what about the 1977 discovery of hydrothermal vents—and life, like giant clams—near the Galapagos?

Ballard: We were looking for hot water coming out [of the oceanic ridge]. We were just bowled over when we came across those ecosystems. We didn’t even have biologists [on this expedition]! Biologists turned us down!

Eos: What did you do without biologists or the ability to “Zoom” them onto your ship?

Ballard: We called back to Woods Hole [Oceanographic Institution]. [Biologists there] said, “Take core samples every so many meters.” There’s no sediment. They said, “That’s impossible. You can’t have clams! You can’t have everything you’re talking about!”

Eos: What’s the significance of discovering life where it wasn’t supposed to be?

Ballard: Because of this discovery of chemosynthetic life systems that can live in extremely extreme environments, I’m confident there’s life throughout the universe. It’s now driving NASA’s program to look at the larger oceans in our solar system, [like] on Enceladus, that have more water than we have.

Eos: Let’s talk about your current exploits on Nautilus with the Corps of Exploration. In the book, you note that you hire at least 55% women for the corps. What about other groups?

Ballard: I am sympathetic to anyone who is being told that they’re different. I want everyone in the game. I’ve said to my team [that] I want every conceivable kind of person on our team, because I want children to find their face.

A collage of people working on the R/V Nautilis
A sampling of individuals in the Corps of Exploration, the team that powers Ballard’s adventures on Nautilus. Ballard has instructed his team to ensure that at least 55% of people in the corps are women. Credit: Robert Ballard

Eos: How do you encourage people who aren’t necessarily interested in oceanography or are afraid of the ocean to work with you?

Ballard: Our technology. You don’t have to go out on the ocean if you don’t want to. A lot of what we’re able to do now [is] because of the telepresence technology we’ve pioneered.

Eos: And of course, that technology enhances your ability to communicate with the public, as you discuss in the book. You’ve been at the fore of science communication for most of your career. How has academia changed on that front?

Ballard: It’s less hostile. I was severely criticized [for communicating with the public]. Science is the luxury of a wealthy nation. It’s the taxpayers that pay for you. You need to thank them, and you need to say, “Let me tell you what I’m doing with your money and why it’s important!” That’s storytelling and communicating.

Eos: What advice do you have for scientists who communicate with the public?

Ballard: If you can’t tell a middle school kid what you’re doing, you don’t know what you’re doing. Don’t simplify science. Explain it in a way that people can absorb it. Don’t talk down. Don’t talk up. Talk straight across.

—Alka Tripathy-Lang (@DrAlkaTrip), Science Writer

Citation: Tripathy-Lang, A. (2021), A life at sea: A Q&A with Robert Ballard, Eos, 102, https://doi.org/10.1029/2021EO159728. Published on 16 June 2021.
Text © 2021. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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