Left to right: Walter Pittman, Bill Ryan, Brian Jones,
Bertrand Piccard, Don Walsh and Neil Armstrong.
Six Heroes of Geography Sign the AGS’ Fliers’ and Explorers’ Globe
By Jerry Dobson
On December 11, 2000, I personally introduced Don Walsh to Neil Armstrong. As the two renowned explorers shook hands, it struck me that I had just introduced the man who went the deepest in all human history to the man who went the highest. In 1960, Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh dived in the Bathyscaphe to a depth of 35,800 feet in the Marianas Trench, the deepest spot in the world ocean. Nine years later Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. The historic meeting of Walsh and Armstrong in my presence was just one among many awe-inspiring incidents in what proved to be the grandest night of my professional life.
The occasion was actually a follow-up to the “state of the globe” discussed in my GeoWorld column of November 1999, in which I described the American Geographical Society’s Fliers’ and Explorers’ Globe, named a few of the 62 previous globe-signers, and hinted that the society intended to catch up on some missing names (Dobson 1999). In a ceremony held in New York City, the AGS honored seven men who collectively ventured the deepest and highest, traveled farthest by balloon, and discovered two catastrophic floodings of ancient seabeds.
The Only Dive Ever to the Deepest Bottom of the Ocean
When the Bathyscaph Trieste descended to the bottom of the ocean, Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh set a record that can never be broken. In fact, it’s never been equaled. No one has ever gone there again. What’s more, no one has ventured half that depth since. Still, Don Walsh joked, “Going to the bottom is no great feat. A lot of people have done it. It’s coming back up. That’s what we define as ocean engineering.” He counseled that the success of any risky exploration depends on keeping the “skill/luck ratio” positive.
Jacques Piccard could not attend due to health, but Bertrand Piccard spoke on behalf of his father. He described the long, frustrating quest as his grandfather Auguste Piccard conceived and designed the Bathyscaphe in 1905 and struggled to build it, first with funding from Belgium, then France, then Italy, and finally the United States. By the late 1950s, Auguste was too old to make the dive, and his son Jacques took over. Walsh was in charge of the development project for the U.S. Navy, and together they made many dives, going deeper and deeper each time until the final dive in January 1960.
First Man on the Moon
If ever truly “no introduction is needed,” it is when introducing Neil Armstrong. Yet, even he felt honored to sign beside the names that were already on the globe. For the early aviators, he knew, not only the names, but the records they held and the planes they flew. In his youth, he yearned to follow in their footsteps but concluded all the records had been set and he had been born too late. Then, a “thin, remarkable slice of history” opened and he was permitted many “exciting and worthy projects.” Witty, modest, humble, self-assured. Armstrong is the perfect model of what a hero should be.
The Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea Floods
For many years, it’s been widely accepted that about 5,000,000 years ago the Mediterranean Sea dried completely, then filled again as seawater rushed in through the Straits of Gibraltar. That discovery was made by Bill Ryan and colleagues at Columbia University’s Lamont Daugherty Earth Observatory. Recently Ryan and Walter Pitman, also of Lamont Daugherty, discovered that the Black Sea had undergone a similar inundation about 7,500 years ago as the last ice age ended and world sea level rose. Together they wrote Noah’s Flood (Ryan and Pitman, 1997), which convincingly documents their findings regarding the physical event and further speculates regarding the cultural link with Middle Eastern flood legends, including the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh and the Biblical account of Noah’s flood.
In their comments, Ryan and Pitman described a successful strategy of exploratory research that is, in many ways, the reverse of the incremental approach to science typically taught in school. Pitman proclaimed that “starting with myth” is a terrible way to do science, and then proceeded to show how their cautious, evidence-based research methodically distinguished fact from fantasy. Ryan made an excellent case for exploration, praising serendipity and demonstrating how unanticipated discoveries often spring from research that starts with a different hypothesis or no hypothesis at all.
First to Circumnavigate the Earth in a Balloon
Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones launched their Breitling Orbiter from Switzerland on March 1, 1999, circled the earth, and landed in Egypt on March 21, 1999. That was the first time in history that anyone had successfully circumnavigated the Earth in a balloon, a surprisingly illusive goal considering how long balloons have been flying and how routinely circumnavigation occurs today by other means. It was a race against time as well as the vagaries of weather and technology. Another team was already in the air when Piccard and Jones launched. Other teams recently had failed, and some of them were certain to try again soon.
Both men recalled how inordinately fortunate they thought themselves to be as the winds blew precisely in their favor, they narrowly escaped death from an air supply problem, and a meteorologist’s hunch sent them successfully across the Pacific on a southern route no one had tried before. Looking down on the earth, they marveled at its beauty and contemplated how many children were far less fortunate than they had been throughout their lives. Overcome with emotion, they pledged to fight the world’s “forgotten diseases,” beginning with Noma, a terrible affliction found all too often among the poorest children on earth. They formed a charitable foundation called “Winds of Hope,” and that is their next quest - http://www.windsofhope.org.
Councilor Bill Derrenbacher of ESRI, Inc. treated us to a dynamic 3-D geo-visualization of each explorer’s excursion using ArcView GIS 3.2, 3-D Analyst, Spatial Analyst, and QuickTime Video Player. We “flew” bathymetrically to the bottom of the Marianas Trench, circumnavigated a 3-D globe as if in a balloon, flooded the Mediterranean and Black Seas, and orbited the Earth and Moon. Video provided by each globe-signer was embedded into ArcView to present actual footage of each excursion. Together the GIS and video helped the audience envision what each of the explorers saw and experienced as realistically as possible. The presentation was a smashing success, and many prominent people were introduced to GIS in a new, imaginative way.
The U.S. Geological Survey funded a workshop the following day to discuss the future of digital exploration and the potential for greater citizen participation enabled by new information technologies. Workshop attendees included all members of the AGS Exploration Committee, one globe-signer, and key Department of Commerce officials involved in the U.S. Strategy for Ocean Exploration.
On a personal note, I served as MC of the signing ceremony, clearly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We tried to make it pleasant for everyone, and I think we succeeded. In my introductory remarks, I told them how rigorous the selection process had been and how tight the competition was. I said, "I think you can appreciate the winners by knowing the caliber of the losers, so I'm going to show you an actual ballot from the Honors Committee vote." [Ballot.jpg] While this butterfly ballot was on the screen, I said, "Al Gore is still absolutely convinced that he won." My brothers, Jeff and Ken Dobson, who happened to be sitting directly behind Armstrong, said he laughed so hard his chair shook. [Editor’s note: Mr. Gore was still contesting the presidential election that night; he conceded the following day.]
The most gratifying surprise to me was the “family reunion” feel of the gathering due to friendships that already existed among some of these great men. Walsh had known Bertrand Piccard since Bertrand was 1 year old, and the mutual affection was evident. At 11 years old, Bertrand Piccard was present at Cape Kennedy for Armstrong’s launch, and the family friendship continues today. Armstrong informed Bertrand that he recently had visited the site where Breitling Orbiter was launched. That brought home to me how highly he regarded both the flight and the family.
My impression, based on common themes expressed by more than one signer, is that many record-holders are frustrated because their finest hour has so completely overshadowed the rest of their lives. Don Walsh said it was like the highschool hero who scored the winning touchdown in some key game and never did anything else with his life. In fact, he himself has lived an outstanding professional career in oceanography and deep submergence that continues today. Neil Armstrong spoke with obvious delight of earthly experiences in the “lower and slower categories” such as gliding in formation with condors over the Andes or visiting the North Pole with fellow globe-signer Ed Hillary.
Another common theme was the all-important equation of skill, risk, and value. Speaking of the globe-signers, Walsh said, “It’s not where we went that’s important. Why did we do it? And how did we do it?” Armstrong quoted Bertrand Piccard, “Accept the uncertainties, accept the anxiety, accept the doubts, prepare as well as you can, and jump. It’s a metaphor for life.” “And indeed it is,” Armstrong added.
The overwhelming effect of the evening was highly inspirational. We heard it from the audience that night and echoes ever since As I left the podium, a physician from Chicago took my hand and said, "It would have been worth it to walk from Chicago for this." That meant all the more because he walked with a severe limp and used a cane.
Later, as I stood in the lobby I overheard a woman exiting the hall say to her companion, "I just want to go out and do something fabulous." And she meant it.
Days later a man who was in the audience called to tell me that he had been prompted to act on some plans for a revolutionary transport device that he’d had in the back of his mind for years.
Even one of the globe-signers later reported that he continued to “pinch himself” for days afterward to assure himself it was real.
That's the kind of impact the globe-signing ceremony had on people. That’s why we humans explore in the first place. And, that’s why the AGS has reestablished its exploration program.
Dobson, J. E. 1999. “The Fliers’ Globe Exemplifies 20th Century Exploration,” GeoWorld, Vol. 12, No.11.
Ryan, W. B. F., and W.C. Pitman. 1999. Noah’s Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries About the Event that Changed History (New York: Simon & Schuster Inc.).