Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Mud: A Thing of Beauty

Okay, so I'm feeling kind of emotional.

I just don't know if I can do it today.

I'm just not sure I can write about science.

Or engineering. Or cores or man baskets or drilling or winches. I don't think I can do it. Really, what I want to do is to write about is champagne and lingerie. I want to write about high-heeled shoes and the new lipstick from Mac and what happened at the Paris Prêt-à-Porter. Honestly, this trip on the Knorr has got my brain twisted up into one big salty pretzel and I feel so confused and adrift and out of element, that I just want to cry. And in fact, that’s what I did this morning. I sat on the side of the boat—I mean ship, whatever--the stern side? Is that it? It all feels kind of stern to me) and I cried.

And then, after a while, I felt much, much better.

There’s no crying in Science!

Well, as far as I can see, there’s no crying in Science. Everyone here is very rational.


Serious and levelheaded.

I am trying to get with the program.

After all, we are doing very important work. Well, the scientists and crew are doing very important work. I am just observing. And okay, for all this rational thinking, I’ve noticed that there is also a certain romance in our mission. I mean, just the fact that these WHOI scientists are trying to save our precious and beautiful ocean is well…romantic! Oh, and despite the fact that they are using all this heavy machinery, they are also incredibly careful and precise. I watch as they stare at their computer screens for hours, mapping out the course of the next deployment, all in search of a place where the mud is good.

And there is a lot of waiting. There is a lot of patience. Time marches forward with a sense of expectation in the air, a kind of quiet, yet palpable tension, and then suddenly, Chief Scientist, Dr. Lloyd Keigwin shouts out: “we’ve just found the mother of all mud!” (Yes, he actually said this yesterday.) I watch as everyone suddenly jumps into action—grabbing hard hats and vests and getting into man basket, the control units—each member of the team taking up their role in the deployment of a core. It might be a long core or a gravity core or a multicore. It might be a combination of these.

To watch this team effort is a thing of beauty. It’s truly awe-inspiring, because each member of the team is completely dependent on one another. It’s dangerous work out there on the ship’s deck and the ability to place trust in one another is everything. And then there’s the precious mud that must be brought up from the bottom of the ocean. If there is an “over-penetration” and there is no water on top of the core to show where the “present” time begins, then the core is ruined and all that planning and plotting and strategy and pulling and pushing and sweating and heavy lifting is for naught.

“This core’s gonna be funky.”

Next there is the cutting of the core, the measuring, the labeling, the organizing and assembling, so that scientists can later share the samples and proceed with lab work back on land. Today, a core came up cracked due to the pressure. Kathryn Rose walked into the lab—covered in mud, wearing her hard hat and steel-toed boots—and announced “this core’s gonna be funky.”

Yes, there was crack in the pvc (the plastic) and so water got it. Cutting it will be tricky, but much of the sample will be salvageable. This is just one of the many mechanical things that can go wrong. It's also one of the many things that make the work dynamic, suspenseful and highly dramatic.

There’s always tension in the air.

It’s no wonder that these hard-working scientists and crew spend the down time laughing and telling stories, watching clips from “Family Man” and reading books or watching a comedy like “Anchor Man.” If it’s sunny outside some of scientists and crew take off their shirts and fish for tuna and striped bass off the stern.

And yet, I sense that there is no authentic “down time,” but rather there is a kind of anxious waiting. I’ve watched them up at midnight, the ship rolling and rocking underneath our feet--steaming forward to a new destination where the scientists will deploy another core. I’ve watched as the scientists take catnaps

in front of their computer screen. I’ve seen Dr. Keigwin do this, head down on the desk, as if he simply cannot bear to be separated from the computer map that reveals where he might once again capture "the mother of all mud."

Dr. Keigwin is an interesting character.

First of all, he’s very fashionable. He wears striped Picasso shirts (although he tells me they’re actually Russian Sailors shirts) and he has longish blonde hair that he often ties back in a small ponytail. My laptop is right beside Dr. Keigwin and Dr. Nick McCave and I can tell you that they both have always have an expression of intense concentration, combined with a little bit of worry and a seriousness of intent that makes you tiptoe by the two of them for fear you might disturb their scientific ruminations. At least I find myself tiptoeing by them in the morning when I come down to the lab and I find both already intently at work, staring into the computer screens at the map of the ocean’s floor and I suspect both Lloyd and Nick have been up for hours at this job--looking

for that perfect location to drill for mud, always in search of the perfect mud.

But it’s not just about the mud.

It’s about what lives inside that mud—those little plants and animals called foraminifera. I’ve seen xeroxed photographs of them, and truthfully, I still didn't get what the fuss was all about. But then, Dr. Cynthia Pilskaln sat me down in front of the microscope the other day. Oh my God! That’s actually what I blurted out, because there--through the eyes of this lens—an entire world opened up to me.

These creatures are so delicate, so intricate, so beautiful! Looking at them under the microscope reminds me of a jewelry box full of leaf-shaped trinkets, silver necklaces, little button clip on earrings, and strands of pearls. Jewels. You can't see it in this picture which I got from the internet, but everything glitters and shines. It's all silver-toned and quite exquisite. You feel as if you are looking at buried treasure.

And they hold valuable information about the future of the ocean! They are a window into the changes that have happened over thousands of years and they can help foretell the future. Some understanding climate change comes down to this very fragile and beautiful creatures.

And, they're inspirational. At least to me. This was my eureka moment. Hidden in the mud, I found the heart of design, fashion, art and beauty. Better than watching a fashion show!

With all this beauty and grace around me, how can I be sad?

Well, I'm not anymore.

See you tomorrow!


  1. One of the reasons I love you is you know when to cry and when to smile and celebrate life.

  2. I feel the earth moving. Scientists around the world are rolling over in their graves because this chick is on the Knorr. Nepotism runs rampant at WHOI.

  3. Hi there--Kathy--Thanks so much for your sweet comment. And Pamela-I'm doing this for free. It's true that my husband is a scientist at WHOI, but I also know that they're actively looking for artists, writers, bloggers and nonscientists to come on board and help spread the word about climate change to the general public. So, if you're an artist, writer, blogger, photographer, filmmaker or teacher--they're looking for you! No WHOI affiliation required. These are exciting times. Oh, and I don't believe the scientists are rolling over n their graves 'cause this chick is on the Knorr. I think they'd probably dig i!

  4. If science doesn't make you cry, nothing will.