Bathysphere

Roman Mars:
This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
The ocean is not our place. We can’t breathe under there. We can’t really see. We can learn to swim, but it doesn’t come naturally. Apes don’t swim. They want nothing to do with putting their bodies into water. It’s only humankind’s incessant need to explore that drives us into such an unwelcoming environment.

Katie Mingle:
And since our bodies aren’t built for it, we must design things that allow us to explore this foreign place.

Roman Mars:
And we have, that’s our own, Katie Mingle.

Katie Mingle:
Alexander the Great is said to have descended into the ocean more than 2000 years ago in a glass barrel. There are various paintings of this event. In one, the Great is being lowered into the ocean by a couple of men in a wooden boat. He’s hunched inside his little barrel, still wearing his crown and robe. The guys in the boat look to me like they are used to humoring his every whim. In some versions of the story, Alexander the Great was not in a barrel, but in a diving bell.

Roman Mars:
Diving bells had been around for a long time. Aristotle wrote about them around 300 BC.

Katie Mingle:
And they were often actual bells like from churches. To understand how one uses such a thing to aid in an ocean dive. Try this quick experiment, fill up your sink with water and push a cup open and down into the water. You’ll notice that the cup doesn’t fill up all the way. There will be a pocket of breathable air on the inside. Amazingly, this works using giant church bells and the ocean too. Divers could lower a bell into the ocean and use it as a kind of home base, swimming out and around searching for sunken treasure and then popping back into the bell for a few gasps of air.

Roman Mars:
But it wasn’t a good solution. The air didn’t last long. The bells were cumbersome and the divers still couldn’t go down very far because of the pressure.

Katie Mingle:
The main obstacle to exploring the depths of the ocean has always been the pressure.

Jim Gould:
Well at 200 feet, your lungs collapsed and you die.

Katie Mingle:
That’s Jim Gould, telling it like it is.

Jim Gould:
I’m Jim Gould and I’m a professor of biology at Princeton.

Katie Mingle:
And he’s married to Carol Gould who will also be talking to you today.

Carol Gould:
I’m Carol Gould. I’m a science writer.

Katie Mingle:
She and Jim have written 10 books together. They’ve been married for 45 years. This is how Jim talks about the first time he met Carol.

Jim Gould:
“And there she was. The person I’d been looking for, for all my life. It didn’t take long from then.”

Carol Gould:
“It’s true.”

Katie Mingle:
“That’s crazy. Um, okay.”

Roman Mars:
Back to oceans.

Katie Mingle:
In the mid-1800s, a naturalist, Edward Forbes hypothesize that below 300 fathoms or about 1800 feet, no life can exist in the ocean and people pretty much believed him.

Carol Gould:
Well, the general thought was that it was just common sense that nothing could live down there because the deeper you get, the pressure increases on the living tissues and it gets darker and darker and it just made sense to people. You know, the way we are, so anthropocentric. If people can’t live down there, well, probably nothing else can.

Katie Mingle:
But these anthropocentric naysayers would soon be proven wrong. The continents were about to be strung together with Telegraph wires.

Roman Mars:
Starting in 1858 nations were connected with extremely long wires. Messages would travel great distances through cables that lay on the ocean floor.

Katie Mingle:
And in 1860, as the Mediterranean cable was raised for repair from about 6,000 feet, lo and behold, attached to the cable were critters, mostly dead critters, but critters that were once alive.

Roman Mars:
This discovery was much talked about in the press. There was life in the depths of the ocean and everyone wanted to know more about it. In 1872, the British Royal Navy sent a modified warship called the H.M.S. Challenger out on one of the first scientific expeditions. It was this big beautiful ship with sails. It looked like the kind of ship people hang paintings of in old rustic pubs or get tattooed on their bicep.

Katie Mingle:
The scientists and sailors spent four years on this ship studying the Earth’s oceans, trying especially to understand the deepest depths.

Carol Gould:
And they did things like put down nets very deep into the water and go along hoping that the nets would catch something that was down there.

Katie Mingle:
But just like our bodies can’t survive the pressure at great depths. Fish that live at the bottom of the ocean aren’t made to live at the top.

Jim Gould:
So as they come up, they basically crystallize and fracture so every cell explodes rather than the whole animal. Every cell explodes, what you have is a bag of goo.

Roman Mars:
The scientists and sailors were pulling up giant nets of exploded fish goo. Still, they managed to gather a bunch of specimens that they saved in jars full of pickling alcohol as they sailed around the world. In the end, they traveled almost 70,000 nautical miles, dredging in pickling. It was hard work.

Carol Gould:
But it was really an arduous trip because they started out with how many sailors, Jim?

Jim Gould:
They started with 214 and ended with 144.

Roman Mars:
Two men went insane. Two drowned, one committed suicide and several deserted, but the Challenger expedition did catalog around 4,000 new species and took depth measurements at hundreds of locations all over the ocean using a weighted string.

Katie Mingle:
On March 23rd, 1875 at station number 225 located in the Southwest Pacific ocean between Guam and Palau. The leadsman cast their weighted string over the side of the ship and it just kept dropping, and dropping, and dropping.

Roman Mars:
A thousand feet, 10,000 feet, 20,000, 30,000.

Sailor:
“Mate, we’re going to run out of string.”

Katie Mingle:
They had dropped their weight into the Mariana Trench and discovered what is still the deepest known place on the ocean floor.

Roman Mars:
But despite the Challenger’s many accomplishments still, no one had actually been very deep in the ocean, been among the living creatures to see them alive in their natural habitats.

Katie Mingle:
There were various attempts at diving suits over the years. To picture the aesthetic range of these suits, start with guy in a barrel with armholes, and get to giant, ridiculous spaceman robot suit.

Jim Gould:
If you look back at these old suits, if you’ve seen the movie ‘Forbidden Planet’, you’ve seen these suits. Robby the Robot looks exactly like one of these suits. The Michelin man looks a lot like these suits.

Roman Mars:
They were incredibly heavy and cumbersome. You couldn’t swim in them. You had to get dragged up to the surface by a boat, and they all had tubes that stretched up to the surface for oxygen. Using one of these suits, the Navy had sent a man 563 feet under the surface of a freshwater lake. Windowless submarines had been as deep as 383 feet in the ocean, but as of the 1920s, no one had gone further than that.

Katie Mingle:
And then came a scientist named William Beebe.

Roman Mars:
William Beebe was a respected ornithologist and an exceedingly charming character who got around by bicycle and spent his time gazing into the skies and writing about birds. Titles of his books include “The Bird: It’s Form and Function”, “Two Bird-lovers in Mexico”, and “A Monograph of Pheasants”. He really loved birds. And then in the 1920s while working near the coast, William Beebe turned his attention to the ocean.

Carol Gould:
He would look down in the water and just spend hours wondering what was down there and so then he started trying to think and plan a way that could get him down there.

Katie Mingle:
But as Beebe plotted ways to go deep, he couldn’t seem to think outside the cylinder, which was the shape of pre-existing submarines.

Jim Gould:
By Beebe’s time, submarines could go down about 200 feet. If you went down further, they collapsed. They were crushed. The pressure outside flattened everything inside. The result is you had a metal pancake and a lot of blood.

Roman Mars:
And then in 1928, a young engineer named Otis Barton got in touch with Beebe and told him that to go as deep as he wanted to go, a cylinder was never going to work. The design had to be in the shape of a sphere.

Carol Gould:
Even though the ocean depth brings on more and more pressure the deeper you go, that pressure – if you’re in a sphere – it’s pressing equally on every square inch of the sphere.

Katie Mingle:
Otis Barton told Beebe he’d help him design and engineer this new submersible, as long as he was allowed to accompany Beebe on all of the trips the sphere made into the sea.

Roman Mars:
Which was a pretty crazy thing for Barton to want considering what a tiny uncomfortable submersible he was about to make.

Katie Mingle:
The final design was about four and a half feet in diameter and there wasn’t a bench or even a level floor inside the Bathysphere.

Carol Gould:
They sat on this horrible cold, wet concave floor that kind of pushed them together and they weren’t really great friends either.

Katie Mingle:
The sphere was made of steel and had two windows of thick fused quartz, which provided an extremely clear view into the water. It also had a small hatch to enter through. They called it the Bathysphere. Bathos being the Greek word for deep.

Roman Mars:
William Beebe set up a science station on Nonsuch Island in Bermuda and they began doing dives in the Bathysphere. The submersible couldn’t move on its own, so it had to be lowered on a cable off of a boat and then dragged around.

Katie Mingle:
In retrospect, the whole thing seems extremely low-tech.

Carol Gould:
Well, it was 1930 and their high-tech is now our very, very low-tech.

Katie Mingle:
Inside the sphere where some canisters of oxygen and some trays of chemicals that soaked up the CO2 they were breathing out. It was cramped and humid in there. Condensation pooled on the floor, and Otis Barton was often seasick.

Jim Gould:
They circulated the air with fans.

Carol Gould:
Palm leaf fans.

Jim Gould:
Palm leaf fans, back and forth, and that was the height of comfort.

Katie Mingle:
They were literally just fanning themselves palm fronds.

Carol Gould:
Yep.

Roman Mars:
It wasn’t comfortable, but the sphere did completely shield them from the outside pressure. They didn’t have to worry about the bends or decompression sickness that divers can experience when ascending too quickly. The thing that really scared them was the idea of a leak.

Carol Gould:
Because if there were even a pinhole leak at those deep pressures, a jet of water would come in at such a high rate of pressure and speed that it would just be like being shot with a bullet.

Katie Mingle:
If the two men could make it safely into the ocean steps, they would be able to see out into the dark ocean using a spotlight. The vessel also had a telephone that they could use to talk to the people in the boat above them.

Roman Mars:
Their first dive on May 27th, 1930 was just 45 feet down, but over time Beebe and Barton started doing deeper and deeper dives in the Bathysphere.

Carol Gould:
When they sealed them in it was incredibly noisy because they had to hammer those big steel bolts and that just drove Beebe crazy. Then you went to the surface and it was sloshing around, and then it just got very, very quiet, and you’d hear the sound of the oxygen coming in, maybe very quiet. Whoosh.

Roman Mars:
And then you’d hear the voice of Gloria who was on the other end of the telephone talking to Beebe.

Gloria:
“Gloria to Bathysphere. You’re now at 285 feet, over.

William Beebe:
“The Lusitania is resting at this level.”

Gloria:
“525 feet.”

William Beebe:
“The deepest point that alive human has ever reached.”

Gloria:
“You’re now at 608.”

William Beebe:
“Only dead men have sunk below this.”

Gloria:
“1,426 feet.”

William Beebe:
“We are still alive and one-quarter of a mile down.”

Katie Mingle:
As they descended deeper Beebe became obsessed with the changing light and color inside the Bathysphere. In his memoir, “A Half Mile Down”, he dedicates pages upon pages to this subject.

William Beebe:
“The blueness of the blue, both outside and inside our sphere, seem to mass materially through the eye into our very beings. An indefinable translucent blue, quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the upper world.”

Katie Mingle:
As the Bathysphere sunk lower and lower-

Jim Gould:
The light is attenuated more, and more, and more.

Katie Mingle:
Until finally they would have been floating in complete darkness. Though Beebe and Barton both swore, there was somehow still an aura of blueness to the blackness. It’s as if the blue had seeped so thoroughly into their eyeballs that they still saw it. Even in the dark.

Jim Gould:
Beebe comments on this and many people who’ve been down comment on this.

Roman Mars:
When he wasn’t having his mind blown by the varying shades of blue, Beebe was tripping out on the fish. After the sunlight disappeared, the only fish they’d be able to see without their spotlight were the ones that provided their own light, that is fish with bioluminescence. So they spent a lot of time turning the spotlight on, off, and on, off.

William Beebe:
“1900 feet. Bathysidus pentagrammus, the five-lined constellation fish, a fish almost round …”

Katie Mingle:
The ocean was teaming with strange-looking creatures at all depths. Beebe would describe these creatures in great detail over the telephone line that went up to the boat above.

William Beebe:
“On the sides of the body were five unbelievably beautiful lines of life. One equatorial with two curved ones above and two below. Each one was composed of a series…”

Carol Gould:
And then Else Bostelmann, who was an amazing artist, was there on board as well and she would make sketches and then when Beebe finally came up, he would look them over and say, “Yes, that’s right.” “No, that’s wrong.” Straighten it all out.

William Beebe:
“Everyone was surrounded by a semicircle, a very small but intensely purple photophores.”

Roman Mars:
Many of Bostelmann’s sketches were published in National Geographic and the creatures they portrayed were so strange, so otherworldly that readers couldn’t believe they were real. A lot of people actually accused Beebe of making stuff up.

Carol Gould:
And that hurt Beebe.

Roman Mars:
Poor Beebe.

Carol Gould:
But almost everything that he described that so many people thought could not possibly exist has since been discovered. Only two or three still haven’t been found.

Roman Mars:
Over the course of four years, Beebe and Barton made dozens of dives and cataloged several new species of fish. They made it to 3,028 feet deep, six times deeper than anyone had ever been.

Katie Mingle:
On one of his final dives in the Bathysphere, William Beebe saw something he’d never seen before.

Jim Gould:
He saw this enormous sea snake on the bottom of the ocean.

Katie Mingle:
It was long and black, the longest creature he’d ever seen.

Jim Gould:
And tracked it for a while before he realized that it was the Atlantic cable.

Roman Mars:
It was one of the transatlantic Telegraph wires that had gotten the whole world interested in understanding the bottom of the ocean.

Katie Mingle:
By 1934, the Bathysphere project had lost funding and Beebe was on to other adventures.

Carol Gould:
He really felt that he’d done everything he could do with a Bathysphere. The main problem being, it wasn’t self-propelled, that you just hung there wherever you happen to drop and you couldn’t for instance, move it to follow an interesting fish or turn it around at will.

Roman Mars:
Eventually, people would figure out how to make a submersible that could move on its own. Two of these subs the Trieste in 1966 and the Deepsea Challenger in 2012 actually made it all the way to the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

Katie Mingle:
The Bathysphere is now on display in the New York Aquarium at Coney Island. You can peer inside of it and marvel at the idea that two men once sat squeezed together on its concave steel floor, fanning themselves with palm fronds in awe of the shifting shades of blue, the creatures beneath the sea, and their place in all of it.

William Beebe:
“I shall never experience such a feeling of complete isolation from the surface of planet Earth as when I first dangled in a hollow pea on a swaying cobweb, a quarter of a mile below the deck of a ship rolling in mid-ocean.”

Roman Mars:
The Bathysphere is just one chapter and William Beebe’s life. Carol Gould wrote a book about the rest of it. It’s called “The Remarkable Life of William Beebe”. Special thanks to Ron Allum, who designed the Deepsea Challenger and captain Don Walsh, who descended into the Mariana Trench on the Trieste. They both spent time talking to us about this story. Thank you to the 99PI players, Dennis Funk, Delaney Hall, and Nate DiMeo.

Credits

Production

Producer Katie Mingle spoke with Carol Grant Gould and Jim Gould, authors of numerous books including The Remarkable Life of William Beebe.

 

Production

“Planet Telex” – Radiohead; “Bathysphere” – Smog

  1. ploosqva

    What’s with the “Error: Request not Found” when playing most recent episodes? Only download works

  2. Bill

    Just what song is that at the end? I know it’s Lullatone, but what’s the song itself?

    1. Brian

      My apologies, the smog track is not quite at the end. Not sure about Lullatone.

  3. Jess

    I get “Error: Request not Found” on every episode I try to play. Only works by downloading.

  4. Catalin Florea

    For “Bill” (September 2nd entry): the song is “Bathysphere” from Wild Love album by Smog (Bill Callahan).

    1. Wasn’t it great?! Yeah, it was Eric Whitacre’s “Lux Aurumque.” A perfect song for this episode!

  5. Rachael Wolf

    Whats the name of the composition/song played at 0:50? I think I sang this in my college choir a couple of years ago.. It’s really beautiful.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories

Playlist