Geology & Geophysics Profile

James Cameron Discusses Record Dive and Science Concerns

Explorer and filmmaker James Cameron discusses his interest in ocean science, the relationship between his exploration and filmmaking, and his thoughts on climate change communication.

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James Cameron, the explorer and filmmaker, led a 4 December panel at the AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco to discuss his daring dive on 26 March to the bottom of the ocean in a one-person vertical “torpedo” submarine, the Deepsea Challenger, and to present some initial science findings from expedition samples and data. The dive touched the bottom of the Challenger Deep, a valley in the floor of the nearly 11-kilometer-deep Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean. The vessel landed close to the same depth and at a location similar to where Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard descended in the Trieste bathyscaphe on 23 January 1960 at a then record-setting depth of 10,911 meters.

Cameron, probably best known as the director of Titanic and Avatar, is working on a three-dimensional feature film of his dive. He is also working on a documentary series about climate change and on Avatar sequels 2 and 3.

After the panel discussion, Eos interviewed Cameron.

Eos: What sparked your interest in ocean science?

Cameron: Jacques Cousteau. I was a kid growing up in a village in Canada that was 300 miles from the nearest ocean, but I was seeing this kind of—I don’t know what you’d call it—like a renaissance or a heyday of ocean exploration in the 1960s…space exploration and ocean exploration simultaneously. I loved the idea that there was this alien world down there on this planet. Then I made the cognitive leap at the age of 16 that I could learn to scuba dive and I could go to that alien world. I couldn’t go to other planets, but I could go to the one we’ve got here. So from that point on, I was a practitioner. I wasn’t just dreaming; I was doing. I was diving. To me, all the stuff I’ve been doing in the last 16–17 years in the deep ocean has all just been an outgrowth of that early fascination with exploration.

Eos: You’ve said that exploration is “way more exciting than any made-up Hollywood special effects.”

Cameron: It’s more exciting because it’s real. We can create anything with [computer graphics], anything we can imagine. I think Avatar proves that. We can create any ecosystem we want, any animal we want, but it’s not real. And if you’re working on a set, you can always do another take. When you’re on an expedition, you’re seeing things for the first time that maybe nobody has ever seen before. You don’t have to imagine it; you’re getting to bear witness to nature’s infinite imagination. To me, that’s at least as exciting as anything that Hollywood can offer. I mean, I love making movies, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a completely different kind of discipline.

Eos: How does exploration inform your filmmaking and vice versa?

Cameron: Almost not at all.

Eos: Really?

Cameron: Not when I’m making a fantasy film. It’s not like things I see in the deep ocean make me want to run out and write a scene in Avatar. It doesn’t work that way. I’m sorry. What the exploration does is it gives you this kind of respect for nature’s resourcefulness. Nature has been at this in terms of the game of life, so to speak, for four billion years, and everything we see around us is the end result of all that. But it had to start somewhere. This investigation now of the idea of subduction zones as being potential cradles of life on this planet, I think that’s very interesting. I’m intrigued by the intellectual problems of where do things come from and how do they work. That’s a whole separate thing from making movies. Everybody’s always trying to connect the dots. They don’t connect. Over here, I’m an explorer. Then I take that hat off, and I go over here and I make movies that are fantasies.

There’s very little crossover. Everybody keeps thinking they’re going to see something from the Challenger Deep in Avatar. It doesn’t wash.

Science and the scientific method, empirical process, is the closest way that we have of understanding the truth of our world, how it works, where we came from, where the planets came from, where the universe came from, all of that. I have a deep respect for that, and it should not be clouded by this idea of Hollywood. I can make up any [bull] I want in Hollywood. I can make up any animal, any world, anything, and I don’t cross-pollinate those things very much. To me, they’re separate disciplines. My fascination with hardware and engineering influences the way in which I make movies, but it’s not my inspiration for the story I’m telling.

Eos: What is your goal in terms of exploration?

Cameron: The metaphor I’ve used [is] thinking you’ve explored America if you walked with a flashlight for 2 miles across the plains of Kansas. We’ve seen so little of this. There’s so much to continue to explore. Every time I talk to [scientific colleagues], we get fired up about a bunch of new possibilities, not just following up on where we’ve been already, but other places where we haven’t looked yet. It’s unending, and it should be. Science in general is unending. Every question that gets answered usually begs two more questions.

Eos: You seem to be opening doors for scientists in many different ways.

Cameron: I’m so in awe of scientists, people that have dedicated their lives to understanding our world better, and not chasing the money dragon, not trying to be rock stars or whatever: all the things that our society seems to hold more dear. I just respect scientists, and I love being in their company and talking about these things and doing what I can to help them in their efforts. Frankly, if science—especially planetary science and deep ocean science—were funded properly, [scientists] wouldn’t need me.

Eos: What advice do you have for scientists about communicating and inspiring others?

Cameron: Where I think it especially needs a lot of work is in climate science. Anyplace where you have a collision of science and policy and big industry and there are big economic interests at stake—with climate, you know, where you’re going up against the fossil fuel industry, oil and gas and all of that, then I think scientists really need to work on their communication skills.

It’s not really communication: it’s being declarative. [Talk radio host] Rush Limbaugh can say any damn thing he wants with certainty. Scientists don’t work that way. They have to qualify everything and say, “Well, this is what we know in this particular instance, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we know.” Everything becomes so qualified, the average person just tunes out. They have to say it’s real, with the same force as the demagogues.

We are at a really precarious point in civilization right now. From the beginning of the Enlightenment on, the age of science has been all about this kind of idea of progressing, where we’re going to continue to understand the world better and better and better. And people were constantly excited and hungry for the new discoveries.

Recently, we’ve reached a point where the economic and political interests of our civilization have diverged from what the scientists are telling us. Now people are in a situation where they’re falling back into superstition, frankly. If they don’t like the answer, they discredit the person, they discredit the researcher with ad hominem attacks. All you have to do to find out why they don’t like the answer is follow the money. Who’s making money off of this science not being true? You can drive a stake in the ground sometime in the last decade and say, “This is the point where human progress actually ended socially.” Because from this point on, scientists are going to continue to find answers and society is going to cherry-pick the answers they want, discard the answers they don’t want, and do whatever they want based on economic and business interests.

Eos: How do you deal with that?

Cameron: You’ve got to teach people that there’s only one truth. You can have 100 opinions, but you can only have one truth. You’re not going to get your truth from religion. You’re not going to get it from politics, you’re not going to get it from demagoguery. You’re not going to get your truth from talk radio. You’re going to get your truth from the empirical process of science and scientific method and nowhere else. And there’s no respect for that.

Maybe filmmaking, maybe doing stuff like this, maybe doing articles, maybe the way scientists embrace the media community and the education community. Education is a big part of it. You’ve got to teach kids to respect the scientific process.

Eos: Tell us about the upcoming Years of Living Dangerously climate change documentary.

Cameron: It will be hard-hitting, investigative reporting, and it’s going to put a human face on the very present proximal issues of climate change. From that, you leverage what’s it going to be like when the number of wildland fires doubles or triples over the next half century? What’s it going to be like when we have these droughts? What’s it going to be like when the 100-year event becomes the every-year event, which is what we’re right on track [for].

The scientists have been consistently wrong about climate change in the following way: They’ve always been too conservative. The things that are really happening are happening faster than the predictions, than even some of the most pessimistic predictions. Scientists are human. They’re going to have a denial mechanism. They’re, in a way, almost hesitant to say how bad it could be because they don’t want to be considered alarmists. But it’s consistently coming out worse than even their dire case predictions. So when you’ve got the right-wing demagogues saying that the scientists are wrong? Yeah, they’re wrong. They’re wrong the other way. It’s much worse than they’re saying.

—Randy Showstack and Ernie Balcerak, Staff Writers

© 2012. American Geophysical Union. All rights reserved.