"I think Mars is boring," says Robert Ballard. The deep sea explorer is working as we talk. He's also planning his anniversary dinner and looking at a very bold male cardinal who's perched outside of his window - a brilliant burst of crimson life against his stark gray Connecticut winter.
He's able to do this - all of this - because along with discovering the Titanic, locating rare underwater minerals and revealing the grotesquely thrilling life that lines hydrothermal oceanic vents, he's also invented a deep sea submergent tool named Hercules that allows him to work remotely. "I went to Home Depot, they didn't have what I needed."
So if you didn't already love and respect Dr. Ballard, you probably do now.
He's speaking at the Winspear on Thursday evening, and he'll discuss every amazing discovery along with his philosophies about education and where we'll be living in the future (Hint: it's not Mars).
"Do I expect them to find bacteria when they drill into Mars? Yeah probably." scoffs Ballard. "And NASA will shout 'Hey we found life on Mars!' And we'll say, 'yeah great.'"
The interplanetary slight isn't fueled by arrogance, Ballard has truly seen it all - so please forgive him if he refuses to get weak in the knees over red-tinged protozoa. When his research determined the existence of tectonic cracks releasing extremely hot water and gasses, he was correct. And the bizarre life that occupies those spaces are more science fiction than anyone could have imagined.
Ten foot long tube worms bathe happily there, while affixed to rocks so basic they share bleach's PH level. In that same 650 degree Fahrenheit environment, he and his team found clams roughly the size of a window a/c unit, but when cracked open, another unknown variety of life had occupied, and was thriving, within the mollusks' interiors.
Had these discoveries happened on another planet, rest assured we'd be glued to our communication devices until every possible question was answered, but because they were home grown, what do they get? A few write-ups in science rags and half a disk on Blue Planet. Now add on that the government invests $6,000 for space research for every one dollar oceanic exploration receives, and Ballard's missions are even more remarkable.
So what's the cause of that divide? Is it a romantic notion that something distantly unreachable holds all of our answers? Maybe, says Ballard, but he thinks it goes even deeper. He thinks it's subconsciously rooted in religion and comfort.
"Where do good people go when they die? Where do the bad people go? Do you like dark or light? Do you live during the day or the night? Do you like to see great distances? Or would you rather be in the dark and see all kinds of ugly things going by?"
So general perception agrees: Ugly things on Mars, cool. Ugly things a skyscraper's distance below sea level? Terrifying, and best left undisturbed.
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That's a mindspace we'll need to overcome if we want to expand our terrain, notes Ballard. "I think Earth is it and we need to move out onto the ocean." To him, the future is one where floating communities of families are common, and rather than gathering trophy food from the top of the sea's hierarchy, we become a culture of aquatic herders.
"It'll be light and it'll be nice and it'll be quiet," he assures, "but we won't be far from land."
Don't worry, there's also a glamorous side of underwater exploration, and Ballard will go into full detail about the Titanic at his presentation. "If I didn't, they'd run me out of town," he promises. But it's the daily work - the eduction, the outreach, and the scientific invention - that might position the human race's new future. Because if you think our occupancy issues are ones solved by distant planets, this scientist would advice you to reconsider. "You can't go faster than the speed of light. And warp speed? Please. All of that is just fantasy."
Rep for team Earth or lobby for warp speed on Thursday night at 8 p.m. as the King of Shipwrecks shares adventurous anecdotes. It's all happening as part of Nat Geo Live! the the Winspear and tickets start at $25.