Saturday, September 13, 2008

Real Flippin’ Cool

Today I made the trek over to the FLIP to pick up scientist Ken Melville. Welcome aboard! On the way over, the driver showed me just how fast the small boat (which really is small) can go. We flew over the water – it was quite the ride! I felt very small in the small boat in the big ocean, but I did get some good snapshots of the Kilo Moana and FLIP. Funny, while I didn’t know what FLIP looked like, I lost memory of what the KM looked like. They’re both quite impressive!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Yikes! Troubleshooting the Bluefin

There is a saying among folks who work with AUVs (underwater autonomous vehicles, if you recall): They will start any interview by saying, “Damn, damn, damn!” Scott Pegau of the Oil Spill Recovery Institute in Cordova, Alaska, doesn’t begin this way; instead he postpones our interview altogether so he can spend some time troubleshooting his twelve-foot AUV, the Bluefin. This $800,000 dollar piece of equipment is not irreparably broken, but it won’t be able to return to the water tomorrow as scheduled. Four loose screws were all it took to run the vehicle amuck; from there the AUV was unable to steer itself left and right, but it sure tried, causing a small cascade of problems to develop. Pegau, a fellow with a commanding voice, will call the manufacturer tomorrow to solve the problem.

The Bluefin (which is actually yellow) is a torpedo-like instrument that is no stranger to trouble. The last time the team took it out, it hit the bottom of the ship. Today it bears a scar across its back and a bent antenna as testimony to the event.

The Bluefin weighs 750 pounds when dry, 1,200 pounds when wet, and has a positive buoyancy of only ten pounds, making it a very stable mechanism that can easily dive underwater to collect data, up to 3,000 meters (almost two miles) deep. Able to escape the ship’s shadows, it carries mostly optical sensors to measure the light field entering the water. By looking down at the bottom of a swimming pool, you can see how waves focus light; the Bluefin measures this focusing and how it changes as a variable of depth.

Pegau takes turns characterizing the Bluefin with Tim Boyd, a smaller scientist working for the Scottish Association for Marine Science. He is more soft-spoken, but equally passionate about fieldwork. Both particularly enjoy working in the arctic on socially relevant studies, such as climate change and fisheries. “There are several ways to describe oceanography,” Boyd says, “one of which is, you go out to sea, and you throw things overboard until they don’t come back, or you just throw things in until you break them.” Since the Bluefin came back (albeit to the wrong place), perhaps it was fated to break in accordance with Boyd’s theory.

An Interview with Marlon Lewis

Marlon Lewis has a couple instruments to throw overboard as well. He is working with the ______ Camera, or RAD Cam, and the Hyper Probe (Hyperspectral Profiler). The RAD Cam is a black device with a camera positioned on either end under a glass hemisphere. Each end has a fisheye lens that measures the radiance distribution of a single color in order to determine how the light environment is changing in terms of geometric structure. The Hyper Probe resembles a small, black rocket. It can measure the distribution of light descending through the water as a function of wave length. In other words, it assesses how much red, blue, and green light penetrates the different layers of water.

Lewis is a curious combination of scientist and businessman. Originally he studied to be a high school teacher, but “it was the hardest job of [his] life.” A special professor encouraged him to return to school, where he studied the biology-physics interface of the ocean toward his PhD. Today he is a professor at the Dalhousie University in Halafax, Canada, and he sells instruments like the RAD Cam on the side. He says business isn’t all that different from what people like Dickey are doing. Scientists have to sell their ideas and manage resources, projects, and time, much as businessmen have to. Perhaps scientists are more creative, Lewis allows, content to live both sides of what he views as the same coin.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Writer Profile: Kyla B

It took about two days to familiarize myself with the ship and be able to navigate its many hallways without getting lost, but now I think I know my way around, especially to the library where the internet is, and the galley where the apple pie is (my favorite!).

A bit about myself: I’m a writing student at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) with all of two classes left to take, which I’ll finish at Portland State University. I’ve worked as a newsletter editor for the UCSD Women’s Center, a technical writer for Trauner Consulting Services as well as Air Force Research Labs, a freelance writer for Gurze Books, and a copywriter for Todd Harmon, Inc. What I really want to do is science writing. That’s why I’m so grateful to participate in this research cruise. I’m hoping it will help me to break into the science writing field.

I faced a dilemma growing up: to write, or to be a scientist. I was known to get in trouble for reading and writing past my bed time, flashlight-under-the-covers style, but I was also known to mix together all the chemicals in the house to see if I could make them bubble. In high school my favorite subjects were chemistry and English. I was obsessed with Science Olympiad, particularly the bottle rockets, earth science, and ornithology events. After working in a cognitive science lab on campus, I realized that writing was where my heart was – and continues to be.

Nonfiction is my favorite genre to write. I love reading about science. These observations have made me realize that I can have both science and writing in my life, via science writing. I believe that science writing is an exciting field, important because not enough laypeople know just how cool science can be. As a science writer, I’ll be able to learn about science and put that into terms that anyone can understand and enjoy.

I love the ocean. While I don’t surf, one could say I’m an avid snorkeler and beach-goer, the kind who always forgets sunscreen but never seems to burn. I volunteered in the education department at the Birch Aquarium for a little while, and the one oceanography class I took in college convinced me that the ocean is a really, really cool place.

So, here I am, on the really cool ocean aboard the really cool Kilo Moana surrounded by really cool scientists. Aloha!

Scientist Profile: Oliver Wurl

Nearby in the chemistry lab, Oliver Wurl is at work analyzing data from the Little Kilo Moana, or the Lil KM. The Lil KM is a skimmer that is aptly named after the large research vessel that carries it because, at __ long, it resembles a miniature of the ship. Using rotating glass disks partially submersed in water, the Lil KM collects a thin surface film of water, which is then collected into a storage container for analysis back at the lab. The Lil KM also collects water at a depth of one meter in order to note differences between this depth and the surface.

Wurl has a knack for explaining his work in layperson’s terms and picking up on any quizzical look I may emanate, at which point he stops to explain in further detail. After obtaining his undergraduate degree in environmental science at the University of Hamburg, Germany, he went to the University of Singapore for a PhD in marine science. Today he is a postdoctoral student studying ocean surface films at the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sydney, Canada. He boarded the Kilo Moana with a German scholarship.

Wurl has always been interested in the way things work. He is excited to show off the Lil KM in action and asks me if I’ll be available to watch it in two days. He explains that research cruises like this one are especially exciting because of all the hands-on, interdisciplinary work that goes on. “It would be awful to have a ship with all chemists,” he laments, adding that part of the excitement is in meeting diverse people who all work together on one project.

He says all this in the lab, where he analyzes surfactants like carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids. The surface film of the ocean is enriched with these chemicals, and it is a complex world of study. Sometimes when you look out at the ocean you’ll see bright patches; these are the areas particularly enriched in surfactants. They alter the reflection of the light and appear brighter. Surface films impact certain processes like the exchange of greenhouse gases, affecting how much carbon dioxide the ocean actually takes up. Though scientists try to predict how much climate will have changed decades from now, their models incorporate a poor understanding of how the gas exchange at the ocean’s surface actually works.

Scientist Profile: Michael Twardowski

An unwritten rule of this cruise seems to be that every project and instrument must have a cool acronym. Michael Trawdowski follows this rule, throwing around acronyms like AOP and MASCOT. Trawdowski is aboard from New Jersey, representing Wet Labs, an Oregon-based company that builds innovative machinery to study water. As a man who never wanted to be stuck in a lab, Trawdowski loves his job because it allows him to apply his post-doctorate in the field, hands-on. He says with almost giddy excitement, “You’re the only one who has [the new instrumentation], you’re seeing something that no one’s ever seen before… The results that you’ve collected are going to be brand new and really novel.”

Trawdowski has brought with him the MASCOT, or Multi Angle Scattering and Optical Transmission, which resembles a black box frame equipped with scientific contraptions. The MASCOT is a powerful tool, a year and a half in the making, that measures light scattering from seventeen angles, the light sources arranged into a semicircle and coming to focus at one point. Using light beams, the MASCOT measures inherent optic properties (IOP), or optic properties of the water itself, rather than apparent optic properties (AOP), which depend on ambient light from the sun. Trawdowski and his team know the exact properties of their light source, such as wave length and frequency, eliminating the complex unknowns of the sun’s light. Using the MASCOT, Trawdowski’s team will be able to model the light three dimensionally.


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Scientist Profile: Tommy Dickey Recap

Tommy Dickey is a tall man with a full head of (one might say fluffy) hair who rocks back in his chair as he talks enthusiastically about ocean optics. “People are always so disappointed when I tell them I don’t really scuba dive,” he says. “[They think] you can’t be an oceanographer and not go out scuba diving everyday.” Dickey may not scuba dive, but he has been on over 60 research cruises across the world and keeps coming back for more. Born and raised in Farmland, Indiana, as a child he dreamed of being a farmer. Oceanography was the closest he came to that, he chuckles, explaining that perhaps “the reason so many of us [Midwesterners] became oceanographers is because we saw the waves of wheat and then we saw the waves of the ocean and related [them].”

Dickey majored in physics and math as an undergrad before the Vietnam War broke out. To fulfill military service within a humanitarian U.S. agency, he joined the Coast Guard and taught electronics to marine technicians. During his last year, race riots broke out at the base in New York City. “There were shootings, there were beatings,” Dickey says. “It became such a problem that they had to do some kind of race relations workshops.” Dickey was chosen as one of two leaders for the then-called “race relations,” now-called “human relations” workshops. “There was the black guy and the white guy – so I was the white guy,” he explains. Perhaps “because of, or in spite of,” the workshops, the rioting did get better. Dickey says that these workshops were the most fun and educational part his time in the Coast Guard.

He took night classes in New Jersey at Stevens Institute of Technology to receive his master’s degree in physics, and then, after borrowing texts about meteorology and oceanography from his friends, he heard about a PhD program at Princeton in geophysical fluid dynamics – a combination of words that would strike fear into the hearts of many, but not Dickey’s. He applied, was accepted, and his career took off. After finishing his PhD study, he received a residential post-doctoral fellowship to do whatever he wanted at the University of Miami, he decided that what really interested him was interdisciplinary field work. Today Dickey, who recently was named a Secretary of the Navy/Chief of Naval Operations Chair in oceanography, is a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and he is in the middle of what may be one of his last projects in the field – RaDyO. He plans to teach well into the future using a new textbook, exploring the World Ocean, written b Sean Chamberlin and himself. His two Great Pyrenees dogs, Teddy and Kiki, will assist him as he teaches.

The central question Dickey and his team want to answer is, how can we view objects above the surface while we’re below the surface? This question has everything to do with the ocean-air interface, where light enters the water. Once light hits the water, it is refracted, or bent, and one of three things may happen to it: it can scatter, or bounce between particles; it can be absorbed by a molecule, which will emit the energy as heat; or it can be photosynthesized to sustain life.

Dickey leads a team of scientists from across the United States and world, including
Scotland, Poland, Turkey, Italy, Australia, Canada, and New Jersey. They must measure an array of complex variables, such as sediments, phytoplankton, and small capillary waves to determine how light behaves in ocean water. Hopefully, the optical measurements his team collects can be modeled to convert fuzzy images into clear ones.