At Deepwater Horizon, Basic Research Was Applied

By Lippsett, Lonny | Oceanus, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

At Deepwater Horizon, Basic Research Was Applied


Lippsett, Lonny, Oceanus


"Basic research, directed simply toward more complete understanding of nature and its laws, embarks upon the unknown. Clearly, that which has never been known cannot be foretold, and herein lies the great promise of basic research.... [It] enlarges the realm of the possible."

--National Science Foundation annual report, 1952

In the mid-1930s, a young physicist named Maurice Ewing sent letters to several oil companies. He asked them to "support a modest program of research" to see whether the seismic methods he was pioneering on land could be adapted to investigate the completely unknown geology of the seafloor.

"This proposal received no support whatever," Ewing later wrote. "I was told that work out in the ocean could not possibly be of interest to the shareholder and could not rightfully receive one nickel of the shareholder's money."

Ewing did get a $2,000 grant from the Geological Society of America, however, and thus funded, he and his students came to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) to use its new deep-sea research ship, Atlantis. They launched novel experiments using explosions to generate sound waves to probe the structure of the seafloor.

To Ewing, the ocean was annoyingly in the way--that "murky mist that keeps me from seeing the bottom," he called it. To study the seafloor, he and his colleagues had to learn how to negotiate the intervening medium. In the process, they unexpectedly made profound and fundamental discoveries about ocean properties and how sound propagated through seawater.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In 1940, on the eve of war, WHOI Director Columbus O'Donnell Iselin wrote a letter to government officials, setting forth "some suggestions as to how the personnel and equipment of this laboratory can be better utilized for the national defense."

Soon after, one of Ewing's students, Allyn Vine, began incorporating their newly gained knowledge. He built instruments (bathythermographs) to measure ocean properties and trained sailors to use them to escape detection by sonar. It was the first among many applications of this basic research that revolutionized submarine warfare.

Many scientists pursued the marine geophysics research initiated by Ewing (who moved to Columbia University after World War II). Their work culminated in the late 1960s in the unifying theory of plate tectonics. It transformed our understanding of continents, ocean basins, earthquakes, volcanoes, and a host of other geological phenomena--including significant oil reservoirs beneath the seafloor where oil companies now routinely drill and make money for their shareholders.

Vine remained at WHOI and spearheaded deep-submergence technology, including the research submersible Alvin, which was named after him. Two years after it was completed, Alvin was applied to a national emergency, locating a hydrogen bomb that accidentally dropped into the Mediterranean Sea. A decade later, plying a basic research mission, Alvin found seafloor hydrothermal vents. To scientists' utter astonishment, the vents were surrounded by previously unknown organisms sustained not by photosynthesis but chemosynthesis. The discovery completely rearranged our conceptions of where and how life can exist on this planet and elsewhere in the universe.

In 1969, another event occurred that is central to this story. The barge Florida spilled 189,000 gallons of oil off West Falmouth, Mass., just up the road from WHOI. In the months following, WHOI biologists Howard Sanders and George Hampson collected marine life and shared them with Max Blumer and Jerry Sass, WHOI geochemists who pioneered the use of gas chromatography to detect low levels of organic compounds in seawater, sediments, and organisms. WHOI marsh ecologist John Teal and graduate student Kathy Burns adapted the techniques to study the fate and effects of oil over several years.

"You had modern science brought to bear on this oil spill," said WHOI scientist emeritus John Farrington in 2011.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

At Deepwater Horizon, Basic Research Was Applied
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.