The research vessel Thomas G. Thompson doesn't look much like a black hole. But right about now it's acting
like one, sucking in people and equipment from great distances away, albeit selectively. The voyage to snare
a black smoker chimney or three begins on Friday, when the Thompson is scheduled to depart Seattle for the
high seas, and the cruise participants and their gear are streaming in from all corners of the globe.
As I write, scientists and graduate students are on their way from the American Museum of Natural History
in New York, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, Penn State University, and the
University of Washington. (The Washington guys have it easy: UW abuts the dock where the Thompson is tied up.)
Eight teachers, part of the university's REVEL Project, have already arrived from as far away as New York City,
as has the NOVA film crew. I'm still stuck in Boston, but the Thompson vortex will have me on a plane to
Seattle tomorrow afternoon.
The one to come the farthest is ROPOS, the robot-on-a-leash that will descend to the seafloor to prepare
the smokers for removal. ROPOS has just returned, in pieces, from a mission in the Indian Ocean, and her
handlers have arrived from their headquarters in British Columbia to reassemble and test her before the
Thompson sets sail.
The UW folks may have the shortest distance to travel, but they're probably working the longest hours just
now. "Everybody's running around like chickens without heads," one UW scientist confided in me. "We're in
cruise mode." Cruise mode consists of a maelstrom of activity: getting final parts, producing extra maps of
the seabed, labeling and inventorying equipment. Come Friday, the tug of the Thompson will have sucked
that maelstrom—all that busywork, all that gear, all those people—on board, and then things will
really pick up speed. Check back on Thursday for an on-the-spot report from the deck of the Thompson.