IN PARADISE -- SPECIAL FROM THE CARIBBEAN" -
The Pan Man
ALAN ALDA: It's not all fun and games down here, you know. There's
some serious stuff going on. On this edition of Scientific
American Frontiers, we're cruising the Caribbean.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) First stop -- Buck Island, where the turtles
are coming home. Then Montserrat -- living with a live volcano.
At Arecibo, we'll listen for extraterrestrials and watch for
deadly asteroids. And on St. John we'll work out what's wrong
with the coral.
ALAN ALDA: Ha, ha, ha. I love it. Science! I'm
ALAN ALDA:, join me now as we explore Science in Paradise.
ALAN ALDA: We all know about the Caribbean. It's that sleepy backwater
with palm trees, blue ocean and gorgeous beaches. Good for
lazy vacations. But dig a little deeper, and your ideas about
this place may change. For science, the Caribbean is nothing
like a backwater. Here in the Virgin Islands, for example,
biologists have just made a major breakthrough in understanding
the diseases that are threatening coral worldwide. Over in
Puerto Rico we'll be visiting the largest radio telescope
in the world. It's one of the most important tools astronomers
have for exploring the universe. For geologists, the erupting
volcano on the island of Montserrat is the place to be --
and that's where our cameras will be, too. And when we head
down to Trinidad, we'll meet scientists who are learning the
secrets of the steel drum. Just about everywhere you look
in the Caribbean there's science going on. Right under my
feet is a turtle-nesting beach. Here in St. Croix is one of
the world's longest-running turtle conservation efforts. And
it has recently turned out to be one of the world's greatest
conservation success stories...
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) We're heading for Buck Island, just off
ALAN ALDA: How big is Buck Island?
It's a little over a mile long.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) Like many Caribbean islands, this one's
ringed with coral reefs -- always good to avoid if you're
a human in a boat... But if you're a turtle they're great
places to hang out. Now we're inside the reef, on our way
HILLIS: and her team. They're out here most days, hanging
out with the turtles.
HILLIS: Morning, Alan.
ALAN ALDA: Morning.
HILLIS: How you doing?
ALAN ALDA: Great. What's the best way to get in?
HILLIS: The best way to get in here is carefully. CREW MEMBER:
Make your move.
HILLIS: There you go. Well done, well done.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) The team works with hawksbill turtles.
They've been so ruthlessly hunted for their valuable "tortoiseshell"
that they're now endangered. There are only a few thousand
breeding females left in the entire Caribbean. Pressures have
built steadily on all sea turtles. The development of nesting
beaches, increased hunting and losses in fishing nets have
all taken their toll. Yet Columbus observed you couldn't sail
here without hitting a turtle. You can get an idea of how
abundant they were from this historic film of ridley turtles
on their nesting beach in Mexico, taken in the 1940s. Turtles
are now protected here... As they are in American waters.
Here at Buck Island, it's biologists like Zandy and her Park
Service team who are in the front line of protection. Many
aspects of turtles' lives are still a mystery. Young hawksbills,
for example, just appear on the reefs at about age five. Zandy
uses a spectacular free-diving technique to catch a ten-year-old
male. He seems a lot less excited than I am. We'll take him
back to the boat for a checkup.
HILLIS: Push, Alan, push. There we go. Alright.
ALAN ALDA: Is he OK?
HILLIS: Oh yeah.
ALAN ALDA: I did that with a leak in my mask the whole time.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) He looks a little like a bird of prey
- and so the name hawksbill.
HILLIS: There are not too many places in the world where people
do free diving captures on sea turtles.
ALAN ALDA: Yeah, I bet.
HILLIS: In Australia they jump off fast moving boats and catch
ALAN ALDA: I'm so glad we're not in Australia. Because that's
what they would have me do.
HILLIS: Most likely. It's called a rodeo.
ALAN ALDA: These guys. Not the Australians. These... I bring them
with me. They make me jump off of things.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) Number six thirty five is an old friend.
HILLIS: The animal was first caught in September of '94, and
the next time we caught it was April of '95. We caught it
again in July of 96.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) Now the part he doesn't like. But within
a few seconds, Brendalee Phillips puts him into a deep, relaxed
ALAN ALDA: How did you figure out how to do that?
PHILLIPS: Well I've done some work with alligators, and it's
known that alligators can be put in this somewhat hypnotic
trance by rubbing down the seam of their stomachs. And so
I thought I would try it with the sea turtles, since they're
also reptiles. Seems to work, little bit anyway.
HILLIS: 1... 2... 3...
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) The young turtle's about 70 pounds
right now, but he'll be twice that when he's mature, at about
twenty years old.
HILLIS: Alan if you grab that right flipper there. Brendalee's
gonna take the blood.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) By analyzing blood samples, the team
has discovered that young turtles here are related to adults
found all over the Caribbean. So turtles use the entire region
as their backyard. It's an important conclusion, and it makes
conservation more of a challenge.
HILLIS: See if I can pick this guy up myself, and Alan if
you'll just sort of actually put your hand up on the shoulder
there. Put your left hand up on the shoulder. Woohoo, ready
to go. Now we're going to try and very carefully lift him
over. Here we go. Woohoo, oh man, he's got a little bit of
air on board. OK.
ALAN ALDA: I thought he'd zip off, but he sort of lingered.
HILLIS: He was a little bit full of air, he had to sort of...
ALAN ALDA: He was full of air?
HILLIS: He had to burp!
ALAN ALDA: The first thing he does is burp?
HILLIS: Well he was on the boat for a good period of time,
so he was really sucking in air, and so all of a sudden here
he was back in the sea again and you know like a submarine
he had blow ballast before he could go down.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) When he's mature this guy will simply
leave the reef, maybe never to be seen again. But mature females
will show up on one of the region's remaining nesting beaches.
HILLIS: A lot of foot traffic today.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) Lucky ones come to Buck Island, where
their tracks will be picked up by one of Zandy's beach patrols.
HILLIS: Think we've got something on the beach. It looks like
she's behind that little manchineel tree. Let's go look. There
we go, how are we doing? It's PPB 179.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) They've been expecting her. She was
here two seasons ago, in the very same week.
HILLIS: This turtle I think is on her second nest of the season.
The average is 140 per clutch. Right now hers is about filling
to the top and might be coming over.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) She'll make three nests on three nights,
and then she'll disappear for another two years.
HILLIS: She's compacting the sand on top of the clutch of
eggs, making a nice firm cap, keeping the eggs and the air
trapped around the eggs. And she's using both her flippers
-- just like our hands, she has five bones in her hind flipper
-- and pushing the sand down using both the flipper and her
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) A total of just 105 females nest on
Buck Island, one of only 3 hawksbill concentrations in the
Caribbean that we know about. Every nest is precious, and
Zandy is worried about tonight's.
HILLIS: It's too close to the sea. And we always have the
potential for a hurricane any time during the latter part
of the summer. And at this point at this exposure on Buck
Island we will get storm surge washing right in over this
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) This was hurricane Hugo, in 1989. It
cut a swath of devastation from the Virgin Islands to South
Carolina. Buck Island was hit hard, losing most of the mature
trees along the beach. So last night's nest is doubly vulnerable
-- it could be washed out by a storm, and without shade trees
it could overheat.
HILLIS: OK Brendalee, let's see if we can find this nest again.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) The following night, Zandy and Brendalee
return to start the job over. With a healthy turtle population,
losing a few nests wouldn't matter. But now every animal,
every nest, every egg counts.
HILLIS: We'll pick a spot further up the beach and reconstruct
the nest as exact to the measurements that we found in this
nest right here. And pray that we've picked better than the
turtle. Watch your step.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) They set about meticulously reconstructing
the nest. It's essential to get the temperature in the nest
right. As with all reptiles, the eventual mix of male and
female hatchlings depends on it. This thermometer will keep
a record of nest temperature.
HILLIS: If the temperature is warmer then they'll be predominantly
female. If it's cooler predominantly male. His legs are awfully
long. We're going to have to find a good spot to push him
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) Here's their latest nesting aid. A simple
replacement for the missing shade trees. All goes well in
the nest. About 60 days later, the hatchlings emerge and head
for the water. They'll disappear for about 5 years, then hang
out on a reef for maybe 15 years, and only then will the females
return to this very beach to nest. So you have to wait at
least 20 years for results. And that's how long the program's
ALAN ALDA: Since you've been doing this project, are there
more turtles now than there were before?
HILLIS: In the last 2 year we've seen the numbers of new nesters
from 2 to 3, jump up to 10 and 15. And what that may be indicating
to me knowing that it takes about 20 to 25 years for a hawksbill
turtle to mature, to get to the breeding size, that by protecting
the nesting beach on Buck Island, maybe we're actually seeing
young from Buck Island, that have matured, are coming back
here to nest.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) That in itself is a terrific success.
But the team's going further.
HILLIS: You going over me, guys?
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) This female is ready to leave the nesting
beach. But before she goes, there'll be a short delay.
HILLIS: Ready... down... Oh, they are strong when they get
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) A dab of epoxy will secure a transmitter
that can be tracked by satellite. The aim is to study where
adult hawksbills hang out, during their 100-year lifetimes.
In the past Buck Island animals have been found in Cuba, Nicaragua
and Belize. This particular female settled 150 miles away,
near St. Maarten. So turtles from all over the region use
ALAN ALDA: They left here and they went to places like Belize.
What does that mean to you as a turtle person? What do you
learn from that?
HILLIS: What we're learning is that our management area for
these animals is not something that we can say, if we're conserving
and protecting sea turtles here at Buck Island while they're
nesting, our responsibilities are not over. We have to co-manage
these with other island nations, other nations in general.
Sea turtle conservation is really resting on cooperation from
multiple, multiple nations.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) Like many Caribbean islands, Montserrat
was formed millions of years ago by a volcano. This fiery
origin never much bothered the residents. Then in 1995… After
lying dormant for nearly 400 years, Montserrat's volcano burst
into life. This type of volcano doesn't produce much red-hot
lava, but something much deadlier -- a mixture of ash, rock
and gas called "pyroclastic flow", traveling over a hundred
miles an hour with temperatures over a thousand degrees. Dozens
of eruptions over the next 2 years devastated nearly all the
major towns on this island paradise. Intense heat from the
pyroclastic flows had literally melted steel frames of buildings.
Most residents and vacationers abandoned the island. But about
3000 people decided to hang on, like taxi driver Willy Morson.
MORSON: I don't want to leave Montserrat. I prefer to stay
here, I prefer to die here. This is anything, everything and
anything that I have I own it here in Montserrat and I decide
to just weather it out. If I die, I die, but y'know with God's
grace I know that Montserrat is going to bounce back and when
it bounce back some of us will be very happy.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) The northern third of Montserrat is far
enough away from the volcano to be relatively safe, so all
the "stay behinds" have moved here to rebuild and get on with
life. They talk about returning to the evacuated area -- locally
known as the "exclusion zone". And they constantly listen
to the radio for encouragement and hopeful news.
ANNOUNCER: At this time we bring to you this morning's volcano
report from the Montserrat Volcano Observatory. Overnight
the volcano has been relatively quiet with a few rockfall
signals being the only seismic activity. It can be assumed
that the dome is continuing to grow in the crater formed by
the Boxing Day collapse.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) Early on Boxing Day -- the day after
Christmas, 1997 -- Montserrat's volcano erupted with unusual
fury. The event was closely followed 8 miles away at the Montserrat
Volcano Observatory, where scientists from around the world
try to predict new eruptions. They watch for ground tremors
picked up by seismic stations buried all around the volcano.
Usually tremors mean there's an eruption coming -- but not
LUCKETT: This station is right on the very edge of the exclusion
zone. And they're actually digging a landfill site so that
is a bulldozer, which is digging right near the station.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) On Boxing Day all the seismic stations
were picking up tremors. These lasted for hours, and then…
LUCKETT: What actually happened was a big pyroclastic flow
at 3 o'clock in the morning the day after Christmas, which
is actually the biggest we've seen so far.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) It's now a few days after that eruption
and scientists Simon Young and Barry Voigt are heading out
to survey the damage for the first time. Near the top of the
volcano, the ground is still smoldering. And you can see where
the rock and ash flowed into the ocean down below. Our crew
was only allowed to come on this mission if we stayed near
the helicopter at all times. So we attached miniature cameras
to Barry and Simon's helmets to follow the action. Their first
task is to collect rocks, which were blown out of the volcano
and went for miles. The rock barrage was devastating.
VOIGT: Anything which stood above the ground here got knocked
over. Some of the things like the trees that got bent over
pretty low managed to survive. But the houses which were standing
in this location beforehand are now out in the Caribbean sea.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) Because the volcano could erupt again
without warning, the helicopter is left running, ready for
a quick getaway. Barry and Simon work quickly. Their trench
reveals three layers of ash, indicating the eruption occurred
in three waves. The first wave was traveling almost 200 miles
an hour, they calculate.
VOIGT: There was a seismometer operating here. And we know
what time the explosion started at the top. And we know what
time the seismometer got killed at this location. So we haven't
been back to visit it but we now want to see just what kind
of damage has occurred - whether just the antenna got knocked
over or whatever. But in any case, this is important information
from the point of view of determining velocity of the flowage.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) The rock barrage that wiped out the houses
completely obliterated the seismometer. This is a piece of
someone's fence. But the speed of the flow was a blessing
in some other ways.
SIMON YOUNG: You can see right next to this completely devastated
charred branch here of a small tree some green shoots already
coming through this deposit. What that indicates is this thing
firstly is quite thin. But also it suggests that all the heat
was very quick and it didn't really penetrate very far down
into the earth. So it didn't kill off all the little seedlings
resting in the soil. So that fairly soon after they get water
again they can start to grow again.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) After an hour, Barry and Simon have collected
dozens of rock and ash samples to be sent off the island for
analysis. As part of the Observatory's routine, Rick Heard
and Lucy Ritchie keep a constant watch on the volcano's rate
of growth. It's one of the best predictors of when it will
erupt again. They head out for a point with a good view of
the volcano's top -- and that means crossing into territory
that's strictly off limits to the public.
HEARD: We're just going to the old observatory site.
Okay, no problem.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) This area hasn't been hit yet by the volcano,
but it's dangerously close. As always, Rick backs into the
driveway -- just in case. Before the area was evacuated, this
was the Montserrat Volcano Observatory. And before the first
eruption, it was a luxurious vacation home. Once a week, Rick
and Lucy come here to try to measure the volcano's dome. That's
the part above the pre-eruption summit, where lava builds
up and eventually explodes. Today is the first time in two
weeks that the dome is visible through the smoke and steam.
HEARD: Getting conditions like this is essential. Because
if you can't see it, we're a bit stuck.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) Rick and Lucy measure the precise angles
to about a dozen recognizable points on the dome.
RITCHIE: Okay, right, let's get number one -- Big Spine
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) Big spine is that tombstone-like piece
of rock sticking up on the right side of the dome.
RICK HEARD: 3,4,4,5,2
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) By combining measurements from this and
a second location, they work out the latest contours of the
dome. Over the last two months the dome has grown rapidly,
adding a house-sized volume of lava every ten seconds. For
predicting eruptions, it's also crucial to know whether the
sides of the volcano are bulging or shifting. After a tricky
landing on the roof of an evacuated house, Rick and an assistant
don their helmets -- with our helmetcams -- and head for one
of six locations around the volcano. Their goal is to figure
out the exact distance between the locations, to see if they've
moved. They're miles apart, but just the change of an inch
would be alarming. At each location, they set up a GPS receiver,
which uses satellite signals to pinpoint the position. Risky
operations like this allow scientists to keep track of the
volcano. But whether the people of Montserrat will ever get
most of their island back remains very uncertain.
HEARD: You know, it may settle down for a few years and then,
you know, 20, 30, or 50 years later it may erupt again. I'd
be hopeful they could develop it for farmland and so on. But
I don't think there's much prospect for living up here for
a while to a long time to come.
back to top
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) How do you get to be a pannist? As Brian
Brumant says -- practice, practice!
ALAN ALDA: Told you I was fast.
BRUMANT: I want to see how fast you is after you learn the
next few notes, right?
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) Brian is lead tenor player with the Renegades,
Trinidad's champion steel band. For big events there can be
a hundred players. I've volunteered to help fill in -- if
I survive Brian's crash course. Steel bands grew directly
out of Trinidad's history. It was a typical Caribbean plantation
island. Sugar cane was the main crop, with African laborers
doing the hard work. The workers maintained a tradition of
drumming, especially for parades. Oil was discovered in 1866,
but it was not until the 1930s, when 55-gallon steel barrels
became common, that oil and drumming came together. Barrels
were cheap and available, and for the poor people of Trinidad,
they became a way to make music. Today the top bands are famous
around the world. And like many top professionals, Brian has
total patience with beginners.
ALAN ALDA: I kept the beat a little.
BRUMANT: That's important. You've got to play the right notes.
ALAN ALDA: Well, you know, you're kind of demanding.
BRUMANT: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6,7 this is what I do for kids.
ALAN ALDA: I figured that.
BRUMANT: Okay, crash course, 1, 2, 3, 4...
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) Transforming oil drums into musical
instruments has become a specialized, highly skilled craft.
First the "sinker" makes a deep hollow to create the "pan".
The hammer blows have to be just right -- enough to stretch
but not split the metal. Then the note positions are marked.
This tenor pan's going to have 29 notes -- nearly two and
a half octaves. Next the magic step that creates a musical
instrument. Each note is outlined with a flat punch, then
the spaces between are beaten down. Eventually there'll be
twenty-nine separate little domes, with twenty-nine different
sounds. Finally, the sinker heats the pan to just the right
temperature. This softens the metal and evens out the stresses
that all that pounding created.
BRUMANT: You got to be just relax.
ALAN ALDA: Let me see you do that.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) Yeah well, talk about relaxing. I think
Brian's getting worried his new band member might not make
BRUMANT: You look better that way. Play like you know what
ALAN ALDA: Oh that's different. I have to act in that case. It
was a creative thing I did.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) Like any instrument, steel pans have
to be tuned -- a job for an expert.
NOEL: tunes for the Desperados, big rivals of the Renegades.
ALAN ALDA: It's a little flat...
NOEL: Yes... She's ready to talk.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) Lincoln gently coaxes each little dome until
it rings true, using a simple reference tone to stay on pitch.
He has to constantly jump back and forth between notes. This
is what makes steel pans unique -- all the notes are connected,
so adjusting one changes others. As Lincoln says, he has to
wake up all the notes before they can talk together.
ALAN ALDA: It looks to me as though you're seeing how the
sound is affected by the other notes, not just how this note
NOEL: Yeah, you have to get everything exact together.
ALAN ALDA: You have to sort of tune it to the other notes,
NOEL: That's why first you're supposed to wake all these,
wake them up.
ALAN ALDA: Wake them up.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) I've graduated from scales to the one
phrase of a calypso tune that I'm supposed to play with the
BRUMANT: I think you're ready...
ALAN ALDA: No, wait, but I haven't got the...
BRUMANT: Your heart is beating.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) OK. More practice.
ALAN ALDA: How long have you been working on steel drums?
IMBERT: On and off about fifteen years.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) Meantime, meet Clement Imbert, engineering
professor at the University of the West Indies. He makes steel
pans the easy way.
ALAN ALDA: This already has the notes in it, then?
IMBERT: This has the notes, the outline of the notes, yes.
ALAN ALDA: After you press this you could play it?
IMBERT: No it has to be tuned.
ALAN ALDA: Oh, I see.
IMBERT: All pans have to be tuned and they have to be tuned
by an expert tuner.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) The massive hydraulic press is a far cry
from the backyard pan sinker. But it's research that has to
be done, says Clement, against the day when someone in Europe
or America decides to get into the steel pan business.
ALAN ALDA: How long would it take doing this by hand to get
it to this point?
IMBERT: This would take almost a day.
ALAN ALDA: I think it might be surprising for people to see
that universities are studying the steel pan. Why, why is
so much effort going into this?
IMBERT: There's a bit of a fear that we may lose some of that
fame, that excellence that we have as the best steel pan producers
and players in the world.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) Trinidadians are fiercely proud of
their steel bands -- they're so much more than fun at Carnival
time. They're about African roots... island history... about
creativity emerging from poverty. So the professors are worried.
Maybe rival makers will emerge. And even here in Trinidad
there's a threat. Believe it or not, steel bands aren't loud
enough. They're losing popularity to rock groups that use
COPELAND: So I'm going to strike this note which is a D just
above middle C on a piano.
ALAN ALDA: Oh, bang, there it comes.
COPELAND: Okay, there it is.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) At the University,
COPELAND: is figuring out how to amplify steel pans. For really
high power a regular microphone can't get in close enough.
So he tried an electric pickup -- like what's used on guitars.
Here's the result. The pickup sound is shown in the bottom
panel. It has an unpleasant extra component -- a kind of "boing"
and "thud" -- which sounds like this when isolated electronically.
ALAN ALDA: Is that the sound literally of the hammer hitting
COPELAND: Actually, you know, it isn't. We thought it was
up to a few months ago. What it is, is the hammer strikes
the note and the energy from your striking the note goes into
the pan itself and it starts exciting the pan and the pan
starts actually to dance, it starts vibrating.
ALAN ALDA: The pan dancing and vibrating is the thud you hear?
COPELAND: Yes, and if you take a look at the underside of
this pan, see our new sensor?
ALAN ALDA: This thing sticks out here.
COPELAND: Basically, yes.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) They've worked out an ingenious solution.
The sideways pickup only responds to side-to-side vibrations
of the pan... Not vertical, which is what the normal pickup
detects. It's the vertical vibrations that turn out to contain
the annoying thud. Here's the same note, heard through the
new sideways pickup. No thud.
BRUMANT: One... two... three... four.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) OK, now it's my turn. I'm going to be very
happy not to have my pan too well amplified today. I lost
it... Wait -- how does it go?
ALAN ALDA: What are you doing to me here, you're throwing
me to the lions!
BRUMANT: You did good.
ALAN ALDA: I did good? I managed to find the drum. That was all
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) I'd only been a pan man for a few hours
and already I was losing my touch.
ALAN ALDA: They're getting mad at me, they don't know that I've
just started. They don't look too happy, I mean they have
to play with an amateur like this. One more time... I did
ALAN ALDA: (Narration): Nestled deep in the mountains of Puerto
Rico is the Arecibo Observatory, the world's largest and most
powerful radio telescope.
ALAN ALDA: How long have you been using this telescope?
CORDES: This is my 26th year.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) Astronomer Jim Cordes and I are on
our way to explore the telescope from a perspective few people
CORDES: And can we get in? No. I'll have to pick the lock.
ALAN ALDA: What is this?
CORDES: I know it's doable because I did it yesterday.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) For a minute it looks as if our journey
is going to end right here at the gate. But fortunately, aside
from being an accomplished astronomer who hunts for collapsed
stars called pulsars, Jim's not a bad lock picker.
CORDES: There we go.
ALAN ALDA: Well, if you can open up this gate, then I guess
you can find a pulsar.
CORDES: I hope so.
ALAN ALDA: You know I've seen pictures of this but I never
knew it was so big. It's gigantic.
CORDES: Yeah, it's big.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) There's a catwalk that leads out to
the top of the telescope. Oh boy -- another fun trip.
CORDES: So you see here it says maximum capacity 5 people
at any given time. When light is on, verify. The light's not
on. I think that means when there are people walking in the
ALAN ALDA: So two of you guys have to stay where you are.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) Actually the catwalk turns out not so bad,
and looking down I can't help being impressed by the enormous
ALAN ALDA: What's the diameter of this?
CORDES: The diameter is 1000 feet.
ALAN ALDA: 1000 feet across.
CORDES: 305 meters. And when we get to the top of the platform
here, we'll be about 500 feet above the bottom part of the
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) Unlike optical telescopes, which detect
the light given off by stars and galaxies, radio telescopes
tune in to their radio waves. But the stars aren't broadcasting
Beethoven's Fifth or the Rolling Stones -- almost every object
in the universe naturally gives off radio noise. Because it's
so big, Arecibo can pick up objects which are extremely faint
or far away, tracking them day and night as they pass through
the sky overhead.
ALAN ALDA: This is gorgeous up here. It's so funny to look
at one of the most beautiful places on Earth, and from there
you're looking at the rest of the universe.
ALAN ALDA: It's gorgeous.
CORDES: It is gorgeous.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) From this vantage point, astronomers have
discovered countless new objects all over the universe.
ALAN ALDA: How far up do you see?
CORDES: We see all the way.
ALAN ALDA: All the way to what, to the edge of the universe?
CORDES: To the edge of the universe.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) Speaking of being on the edge...
ALAN ALDA: You know, Vesuvius is beginning to look good to me.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) Now we're on our way to see how the
telescope has had a major upgrade over the past few years.
CORDES: So we like to mix athletics with astronomy.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) Back when it was built in the 1960s,
Arecibo was set up to focus radio signals from space onto
that long spiny antenna you see on the left. But now with
the upgrade, when signals come in and bounce off the dish
below, they're aimed into a three-story white dome -- which
is where Jim and I are heading.
CORDES: Here we are.
ALAN ALDA: Fantastic
CORDES: This is the Gregorian dome.
ALAN ALDA: Wow. What a sight.
CORDES: The radio waves come through the hole here, reflect
off this secondary reflector - that's about 80 feet across.
The radio waves then are focused towards this tertiary reflector.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) The extra reflectors concentrate the radio
waves so that by the time they reach the receiver, the signal
is ten times stronger than before. So there'll be a lot more
discoveries made at Arecibo in future years.
ALAN ALDA: Is this part of the control room?
BOWYER: Yeah, this is the major control room.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) Stu Bowyer runs a small private project
here that will also benefit from the upgrade.
BOWYER: Right here is a raw signal. Buried in that may be
a signal that signifies intelligent life somewhere else in
ALAN ALDA: How would you know?
ALAN ALDA: What would it look like if it were? Wait, there's all
these big spikes. What's that? I think we got something here.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) Next door a specialized computer breaks
down the raw signal into millions of channels and analyzes
BOWYER: It's as if you had your regular radio dial and you
were twirling the knob and moving through each of the different
radio stations. What this does, instead of twirling the knob
it does all of it at the same time -- a hundred and sixty
eight million of them simultaneously.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) Every two seconds, the computer sorts
the signals -- rejecting nearby strong ones like cell phones,
but keeping faint distant ones you have to focus the telescope
BOWYER: As we're looking at it kind of off it's kind of dim.
And then we look at it full on it gets brighter. And then
we look at it off it gets dimmer. If it has that profile,
that's a good hint...
ALAN ALDA: That it's pretty far away.
BOWYER: That it's consistent with it being far away.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) Other tests include: not coming from a satellite
in orbit... being there a second time... and not being a natural
object like a star. After years of listening, no signal has
passed every test.
ALAN ALDA: Why is it important to you to make this kind of
BOWYER: Well, certainly I and a lot of other people think
this would be the biggest event in human history.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) In recent movies like "Deep Impact",
the big event has been depicted as something very different.
Here, it's a six mile-wide chunk of rock heading for Earth,
threatening the survival of humanity. A nightmare like this
is not at all far-fetched in the eyes of astronomer Steve
OSTRO: The possibility that an asteroid can smash into the
earth is absolutely real. A kilometer-sized object colliding
with the Earth would effectively destroy civilization and
the odds of this happening are almost one part in a thousand
during the next century.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) Our best tool for studying asteroids is
Arecibo, because up in that new dome is the world's most powerful
radar transmitter. Its beam is bounced off the dish to reach
objects that are millions of miles out in space. With a quick
adjustment in the dome, the telescope picks up the returning
Ready, go ahead move. All frequencies...
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) Work has just now begun at Arecibo to catalog
by radar all the asteroids - they're invisible to optical
telescopes. This is the kind of remarkable image you can get
of a 3 mile-long asteroid 4 million miles away -- about 20
times farther than the moon. From these images you can produce
three-dimensional models. If we ever have to knock an asteroid
off course, knowing its exact shape will be crucial for determining
exactly how to hit it. So one day we may all be very happy
that Arecibo exists. Not a bad place for a hike either.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) The Virgin Islands. From here down to Venezuela
it's a five hundred-mile loop of beautiful, small islands
set in a sparkling sea. They're some of the world's most popular
tourist destinations -- to find the sun... or catch a wave.
Below the surface things get even better. Coral reefs -- the
rain forests of the ocean -- delight the eye and the imagination.
But in the winter of '98 there were obvious problems with
the health of the reefs. And that's when I found myself being
thrown around in a small boat, in the company of three coral
experts -- Gene Shinn and Ginger Garrison of the US Geological
Survey... And Garriet Smith from the University of South Carolina.
We're off St. John -- and this is no vacation.
ALAN ALDA: Caribbean, they said, we're going to shoot in the Caribbean.
Nice. All these great stories, sun, surf...
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) We found a spot that was sheltered
and got ready to check out the reef. The scientists and I
are going to be free-diving, while our underwater camera crew
will be using scuba. Free diving's a lot simpler than scuba,
and just fine for seeing shallow reefs like these, ten or
twenty feet deep. The bad weather has stirred up sediment,
so it's not as clear as it could be. But it's more than enough
for Ginger to point out the problems. Here comes the free
dive... And here's the problem. On this boulder coral, large
white patches where the living surface has died off.
GARRISON: Looking pretty slick there.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) As we head back down, I realize that white
patches of different sizes are everywhere on the boulder coral.
It's one of the Caribbean's principle reef-building corals,
so this is a disturbing sight, to say the least.
ALAN ALDA: When I see the white stuff down there, what am
I looking at?
GARRISON: Well, the white area that's surrounded by the normal
looking coral tissue that's brown is actually just the skeleton.
What's happened is the disease, whatever the pathogen is,
has evidently killed the polyp and that tissue has sloughed
off. So it's like if we lost everything except our bones so
that we wouldn't have any flesh on them.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) Next Ginger takes me down to check out the
sea fans. There are clumps of them all around, waving lazily
in the swells. Sea fans are one of the soft corals -- not
reef-builders, but an important part of reef ecology, providing
shelter for many inhabitants. But the sea fans are in bad
shape. This is a typical example -- chunks of the fan rotted
away, with bright purple patches. Once you know the symptoms
you notice them everywhere. Garriet Smith outlines a light
purple infected area. Eventually it'll die off, leaving a
gaping hole in the fan. Here the process has already started.
This is not just a local problem -- sea fans all over the
Caribbean are affected. On the reef there are fans at every
stage of deterioration. This one's lost almost all its living
tissue. So out we came -- cold, wet, tired, depressed at the
state of the reef. And as if that weren't enough...
ALAN ALDA: I have a blister from my flipper.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) Then I realized that my companions don't
care about working conditions. It's knowledge they're after.
ALAN ALDA: Ha ha ha, I love it. Science!
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) This is a diseased Caribbean sea fan
in Garriet Smith's lab at the University of South Carolina.
You can see the skeleton from which the living white tissue
has died back. The brown growth is some kind of secondary
infection, and the purple is an immune reaction that shows
the coral is trying to fight whatever is attacking it. So
what is attacking it? The team's now pretty certain they've
nailed it down. Here's what they did. Samples were taken from
diseased sea fans from six different islands. After culturing
for a few days, this is what they got... A whole mix of about
a dozen fungi and bacteria. It looked to Garriet that only
one was common to all the sea fans. It had the typical threadlike
appearance of a fungus. Garriet confirmed that it caused the
disease, by deliberately infecting healthy sea fans. So now
it was time to identify the fungus. It's routine nowadays
to map out the DNA of organisms.
RITCHIE: A - G - T - A - A...
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) Garriet and Kim Ritchie mapped out
the fungus' DNA, looked it up in the databases -- and got
a big surprise. Sea fan disease was caused by a common soil
fungus called Aspergillus. You could find it in any backyard.
But how was Aspergillus getting to coral reefs in the Caribbean?
Take a look at this. This picture was shot from the space
shuttle over the Atlantic. The brown stain is dust -- millions
of tons of it -- coming from new farmland in Africa. In drought
years, when there are often dust-bowl conditions, huge quantities
are swept across the ocean on the trade winds, to settle on
the Caribbean. Gene Shinn suspected that the dust could be
delivering a constant dose of damaging material to the water,
and to the coral. And it could explain why coral diseases
appear all over the Caribbean at the same time. Gene takes
up the story.
SHINN: I got talked into presenting this as a hypotheses at
the Oceanographic Society annual meeting last year on April
Fool's Day, by the way, and a lot of people took it that way...
ALAN ALDA: They didn't go along with this idea.
SHINN: I had discovered that everyone who studied dust in
the past, the one common denominator is they all got laughed
at one time or another. And they were studying dust in the
late 60s and early 70s and there wasn't that much dust. But
it's a hundred fold greater now.
ALAN ALDA: Is it pretty clear to you therefore that this rise
in disease here in the coral is because of the desertification
SHINN: Well, it was just an observation that the peak years
for the dust, like '83 or '87, these were big years for the
coral reefs and things changed. It seemed like there was a
ALAN ALDA: (Narration): To find out what the Caribbean winds
GARRISON: sampled the air above St. John. The filter papers
went to Garriet Smith in South Carolina. And along with dust
particles, he saw thousands of tiny fungal spores. So next
step -- culture the spores. A few days later -- another mix
of organisms. And among them -- you guessed it -- Aspergillus.
So Aspergillus spores are definitely in the air in the Caribbean,
but how the grown fungus actually gets into the coral is still
a puzzle. Aspergillus usually needs soil to germinate. A little
could then wash off into the water, but not much. Or maybe
Aspergillus is behaving in some new way, germinating in the
water itself. While the basic idea seems pretty solid, there's
still a lot of detail to figure out.
SHINN: The gods are with us.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) I'm getting to be a real pro at this
now. Gene Shinn's moving on to the next phase of the investigation.
He's drilling a deep core sample from a large boulder coral.
The aim is to look at the recent history of the reef, to see
if what happened from year to year can somehow be matched
up with dust conditions.
SHINN: There you go, that's about thirty to forty years of
growth. Not as easy as it used to be.
ALAN ALDA: Do you see anything on this? Can you read this in any
way now without taking it to the lab?
SHINN: Well, you can see this is the growth axis, these lines
pointing this way, and that's each individual polyp and you
can see the little polyps. It's like a little jellyfish that
secretes calcium carbonate and so our plan is to take the
segments, cut them out with a diamond saw, dissolve them in
hydrochloric acid and then we get a residue, and that residue
will be, hopefully will be, African dust.
ALAN ALDA: (Narration) The unexpected story of dust and fungus
is an important breakthrough in understanding coral disease,
but it's just the beginning. There are many other coral diseases
around the world, and as for the dust itself maybe a billion
tons a year fall on a huge area, from the Amazon rain forest
to the southern United States. We're going to be hearing a
lot more about dust in years to come. That's all for our Caribbean
special. See you next time.