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THE OCEANOGRAPHER AS STAR

EXPLORATIONS
By Robert D. Ballard
Hyperion
407 pages, $24.95

Life underwent a sea change for Robert D. Ballard when he found the Titanic.

Overnight, he assumed superstar status in the public pantheon of explorers, right up there with Jacques Cousteau.

It was heady stuff, but not without its downside -- within the oceanographic community, where true exploration is measured in reams of data and small increments of understanding, it became a lot harder to take Ballard seriously.

There is an element of irony in that. Ballard the scientist, caught in the limelight of Ballard the explorer, has been trapped by the very thing that drives him -- the quest for new models, new paradigms, new futures.

As Cousteau's aqualung transformed the exploration of shallow waters, Ballard's championing of new technologies has energized deep-sea exploration. He is a larger-than-life figure partly because of the high-profile exploits dismissed by critics as show business, but also because he has risked his career repeatedly to push technology to new levels instead of merely following it to existing ones.

In this semi-autobiography, written with Malcolm McConnell, Ballard emerges as a man driven by the need to know, and willing to share his discoveries to satisfy the curiosity of non-scientists and spark the enthusiasm of the young.

This is not an all-out unveiling of the inner man. Such traumatic life experiences as the death of his eldest son and a post-Titanic decision to divorce his wife of 21 years because she had not kept pace with his inner growth draw barely a few paragraphs, in passing.

Instead, Ballard outlines a professional journey. A young and uncertain student in the book's early pages, Ballard becomes in turn a doctoral candidate making key contributions to the debate over plate tectonics, a Woods Hole marine geologist probing the deep and unveiling new worlds of marine biology as he promotes the future of manned research submersibles, a scientist with a private, top-secret Navy research agenda hidden beneath the very public searches for H.M.S. Titanic and the German battleship Bismarck, and an educator trying to draw youngsters into the excitement of science.

The stories this ocean explorer has to tell are inherently dramatic, and highly interesting.

Here are tales of the Titanic, the Bismarck, unexpected colonies of life around deep-sea thermal vents, the dramatic movement of continents and sea floors, Roman shipwrecks in the Mediterranean, and near-disasters in vulnerable submersibles thousands of feet below the surface of the sea.

Here, too, is the development of Project Jason and Ballard's sought-after goal of "telepresence," drawing students and others into the deep in real-time explorations that mark the next step beyond manned submersibles. Ballard's exploration of War of 1812 shipwrecks off St. Catharine's in Lake Ontario was part of this project, bypassed in the text but represented in several of the book's color photographs.

Ballard and McConnell capture the uncertainty of projects that depend on salesmanship as well as science to gain funding, and the high risk that failure in one effort might doom the next before it even gets started. Given the nature of both deep-sea exploration and the nature of Ballard's funding streams, in fact, "Under Pressure" might have been a more appropriate title.

In the span of just a few decades, Ballard has packed an enormous record of challenge and achievement. His narrative outlines those explorations very well indeed, and offers the promise of continuation as he prepares to launch a new Institute for Exploration at the Mystic Marinelife Aquarium in Connecticut.

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