“Cosmos”, C. C. Patterson, and “What the Fish Knew” about the Deep Sea


Last night I caught up with the latest episode of Cosmos, the rebooted Carl Sagan series now hosted by Neil Degrasse Tyson. Among the many pleasures of the new series is the amount of time given over to the history of science. As academic historians, of course, we inevitably find ways of critiquing the history portrayed (that is what academics do after all). However, having now worked on the script for the (albeit much shorter) Edward Forbes video promised in the previous blog post, I am well aware what a challenge it can be to digest a complex narrative into a short video format. I’m sure if I were an astrophysicist I would feel the same way about the presentation of the astrophysics. Nevertheless, I think the new series must be commended for the breadth of the history of science material covered.

I was pleasantly surprised when the latest episode, “The Clean Room”, included some history of oceanography.  Much of the episode was dedicated to the story of Clair Patterson, a geochemist who determined the true age of the earth and discovered that industrial lead had become a widespread environmental contaminant. As was explained in the episode, the key evidence Patterson cited was gathered by extensive collection of seawater samples. Viewers are even shown the cover page of Patterson’s article “Concentrations of Common Lead in Some Atlantic and Mediterranean Waters and in Snow” [Nature 199, 350 – 352 (27 July 1963)]. As Neil Degrasse Tyson explained, Patterson (and his co-author Mitsunobu Tatsumoto) argued that shallow seawater contained higher lead contamination than deep seawater. Given previously established models of global oceanic circulation, this evidence suggested that younger shallow water (more recently exposed to the atmosphere near the surface) was contaminated with industrial lead pollution, whereas older deeper water pre-dated industrial lead pollution. Patterson’s claims about environmental contamination turned out to be true, of course, and, as we learn later in the episode, his work resulted in government-imposed restrictions on industrial lead production.

Yet, were we to complicate this story, we would note that when Patterson undertook his seawater research much was still unknown about deep-water circulation. In fact, Patterson even suggested in his Nature article that his research promised “a better understanding of oceanic circulation.”  Mathematics-based theories of abyssal circulation were still quite new in 1963 [see, for instance, Eric Mill’s discussion of Henry Stommel in The Fluid Envelope of Our Planet, p. 276]. Throughout the 1960s, however, abyssal circulation was attracting increasing scientific interest. This was because of concern over the safe disposal of radioactive waste. The deep sea was proposed as one feasible location for dumping radioactive waste, but oceanographic studies (beginning during the 1958 International Geophysical Year) indicated that “dead zones” were uncommon at great depths and that the deep sea was not as isolated from ocean water circulation as previously speculated [see Jacob Hamblin, Poisoning the Well, p. 127]. This brings us to the other part of this blog entry title: “what the fish knew.”

One of the most famous oceanographic expeditions of this period was the 1960 dive of the Bathyscaphe Trieste into the Marianas Trench, the deepest known spot on the planet. A few years ago I was fortunate to see an online presentation given by Don Walsh, one of the two expedition members who undertook that historic dive. During the question period I asked him about a flat fish which had been seen shortly after the submarine touched down on the bottom. (You can listen to the full interview here; I asked my question at about 51:50.) The answer Don Walsh gave was interesting: “we were engineers, testing a platform; you almost thought you shouldn’t have mentioned it.” I didn’t think much about the Trieste fish sighting again after that until I recently came across a transcript of an interview with the other Trieste expedition member, the late Jacques Piccard. I am copying the relevant excerpt from the interview with Piccard below [Victor Ozols conducted the original interview in 2005; he has made a transcription available on his blog]:

When we arrived at the bottom, just at about ten or 15 feet from the porthole, we saw a fish which was at first absolutely not moving at all, and after a few minutes he started to move and to swim, very slowly, and to disappear in the darkness a few feet farther.

And this was very, very interesting, you know, because a fish living like this in the bottom of the sea of course is using oxygen for breathing. And this oxygen was, of course, in the water, and where was it coming from?

It could come only from the surface, because on the surface you have the […] planktons, making oxygen, producing oxygen, and the waves, taking oxygen from the air, or taking air from the atmosphere, and, by current, this oxygen finally arrived to the deepest place in the ocean.

And then, also, if you have water coming from the surface, maybe after several years of voyage, of course, this new water will push the old water away, and this water will finally arrive back to the surface.

So you can imagine it is a kind of a movement from water from the surface coming down to the bottom of the sea, and back to the surface, and so on. These are cycles which can take scores and scores of years, of course.

But it was very important, because, at that time, many people, scientists, also, and politicians, economists, economic people, and so on, said what can we do with the refuse, I believe you say, of the nuclear power, energy. […]

So people said, oh nuclear waste, we can drop them in the deep trenches and then they would stay there forever. And no, we said no, it’s not true, this fish practically told us that we are not to drop any nuclear waste in the bottom of the trenches, because we know that the water is finally coming back to the surface, and all the sea would be damaged, all the oceans and so would be damaged by the nuclear waste.

To conclude – why does this all matter? The Cosmos episode used the story of Patterson to argue for the importance of government-supplied research funding. When Patterson’s petroleum company funding was cut he continued to be supported by the U.S. Government, the Army, Navy, the Atomic Energy Commission, the Public Health Service, and the National Science Foundation. The implied message was that public research funding, unlike private funding, is free of bias or external agenda; as historians of science, we know reality is a bit more complex. However, this blog entry shouldn’t be read as a critique of Cosmos. Science needs public support and the writers’ ability to condense an extremely complicated historical narrative is impressive. I’m looking forward the rest of the series and can only hope we may get some more history of oceanography.

As an example of how the history of oceanography can be told using Cosmos-like animation, check out this video, by animator Roman Wolter, set to an audio excerpt from the original Piccard interview.

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