Moviemaker James Cameron Speaks to Scientists

Liz O’Connell for Frontier Scientists

James Cameron seamlessly merged the movie-making world with the science world in his talk at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) December annual conference in San Francisco.  While movie goers suspend disbelief as they immerse themselves into this director’s blockbuster worlds in The Abyss, Alien, Avatar, and Titanic, skeptical scientists need the proof, the method, and evidence of ground breaking discoveries to be impressed.

James Cameron map of Mariana Trench
The Mariana Trench


Matching the deepest dive record in the Mariana trench as Cameron did was amazing but not ground-breaking.  Nonetheless, the design of the “Vertical Torpedo”, the submarine which carried him to the 11 kilometer depth, is more innovative than its 1960 predecessor the Trieste.

The image below shows the difference between the Trieste and the Vertical Torpedo, dubbed Fat Man and Little Boy.


James Cameron vessel Fat Man Little Boy
The Trieste & The Vertical Torpedo

At AGU, Cameron showed an HD video documenting the manufacture of the Vertical Torpedo sub.  His enclosure for the dive was a steel diving ball forged and molded around a global form, soldered together then nested and strapped into its spot on the Vertical Torpedo.  The straps mitigated the 5 inch size differential the vehicle encountered when it encountered the pressure of the deep depths.  The design of the torpedo illustrated in the break-apart model clarified most questions about power, ballast, and control.  Cameron described the configuration in detail as the model sequentially animated to display the vehicle taking him to the record depth. Watch animation of the Vertical Torpedo‘s descent on National Geographic.

James Cameron dive globe module enclosure
Cameron’s enclosure for the dive


Cameron is brave, to be the guinea pig in his own adventure.  Cameron dove solo while Jacques Piccard, a Swiss oceanographer in the Trieste, dived with US Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh.  Not to be foolish, Cameron tested his Vertical Torpedo in scientific steps, going deeper with each dive.  Some of the innovations Cameron broke in: an ultra-small stereoscopic camera able to withstand the ocean depth pressure, structural engineering innovations such as patented syntactic foam, and LED lighting and hydraulics.

“And as with any really good edge cutting contrivance, things break,” Cameron said.  And it happened.  When he reached bottom, Cameron deployed the hydraulic sampling arm only to note some hydraulic oil floating in his view.  Nonetheless, Cameron explored for three hours on the bottom.  His three hour time on the seafloor beat the 20 minutes record previously set during the Trieste expedition’s time on-the-bottom.

“Deep sea projects are so underfunded that whenever you go down, something new will be discovered,” said Cameron.  So Cameron surrounded himself with scientists during preparations for the dive, during the dive and on stage during the presentation at the AGU conference to describe and show photographs of some physical structures and creatures he had encountered in the deep.  Scientists Douglass Bartlett, Scripps marine microbiologist, Kevin Hand of the Jet Propulsion Lab, and Patricia Fryer, a marine geologists at the Hawai’i Institute of Geophysics and Planetology, described the new findings under analysis.  Those findings include bacterial mats fed from serpentine vents, new species of sea cucumbers and a lot of new microbes.

We have much more to learn.  The deep ocean is awesome.  Thanks Cameron!  For a little fun, our readers can also take a look at Randall Monroe’s rendition of the deep.  Monroe compares Cameron’s expedition with other deep notables in his creative Lakes and Oceans graphic.

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