Dr. Edmond A. Mathez is Director of the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department
at the American Museum of Natural History. He is also the principal scientist
involved in the design of the museum's new Hall of the Planet Earth, which is
slated to open in the summer of 1999. Ideally, a black smoker from this
expedition will end up in that exhibition.
NOVA: Why do you want to bring back a black smoker for the museum?
Mathez: Well, to put it in context, the American Museum is an academic
institution in the tradition of the large European natural history museums.
Part of our responsibility is to make collections, for collections are the
fabric of our science. We guard these collections for the scientific community,
and we hold them in the public trust. And, of course, we want to exhibit some
of them. That is our second important responsibility: to show what the natural
world is like to the people that come to visit the museum.
More specifically, black smokers are important icons of what has almost become
a new science. In our upcoming Hall of Planet Earth, we ask the question, "What
makes the Earth habitable?" Implicit in that question is that the boundaries of
our fields are changing rapidly, especially between geology and biology. We no
longer view the notion of the origin or evolution of life as questions you can
reasonably talk about without also talking about the evolution of the Earth.
The black smoker is iconic of that shift in thinking, because it represents a
part of the world where organisms live on the chemical and thermal energy of
the Earth, not on sunlight. And at the same time, we're investigating how these
organisms influence precipitation of certain minerals.
NOVA: Do you think it's important that the public have the opportunity to see
real objects and not just models?
Mathez: As real scientists, we have to have real objects to study, and we don't
want to show fake objects, if you will. Showing real objects also illustrates
the seriousness and passion we bring to our trade, which come through in the
care with which such objects are exhibited. Some of the dioramas in the museum,
for example, are exquisite works of art, and that implicit care and dedication
to detail moves people, I think.
Furthermore, this is a frontier that only a few scientists have had the
opportunity to visit. Of course, we have photographs. But to see a photograph
is not to see the real thing, to see it in all its beauty. It's the difference
between seeing African mammals in a nature program and seeing them in the wild—or at least in our dioramas.
NOVA: Would you consider deep-sea vents a final frontier?
Mathez: They certainly represent one of the last frontiers on Earth. One of the
reasons we're exploring this realm now is because we know enough about it to
know that we know very little about it. It's a frontier whose time has come. I
would say it is similar to that of the western United States at the time of the
American Revolution, when people knew there were mountains and there was a
Pacific Ocean. But they didn't know how high the mountains were or how far the
Pacific Ocean was. They didn't know the best route, they didn't know who or
what lived there, or what resources were there, or whether it was livable or
NOVA: How does this expedition compare to others the museum has mounted?
Mathez: It is very much within our tradition of probing the frontiers, of going
places that other people haven't gone before. It's very exciting to be able to
go to a true frontier and to bring the fruits of those expeditions back to the
museum. Comparatively speaking, this must be one of the most ambitious
expeditions the museum has ever mounted. It's not only very expensive, but it's
complicated. There's an enormous amount of planning and equipment and people to
get together. Furthermore, it's risky. But I find that to be one of the fun
things about expeditions: you don't actually know if you're going to get what
you set out to get.
NOVA: Do you like the multidisciplinary nature of this expedition, with
different scientists working together toward the same goal?
Mathez: Personally, I always find it exciting to work with people in other
disciplines, because each of us was taught different ways of approaching
problems. I have been fortunate enough to work with physicists, for example,
and I've always found that to be very stimulating. It's part of the wisdom one
acquires in the sciences. And we're entering a period in our science when
interdisciplinary work is becoming increasingly important. It wouldn't make any
sense to study objects like black smokers just from the point of view of their
biology or just from the point of view of their geology.
NOVA: What big scientific questions might you and other researchers address
with black smokers?
Mathez: General questions concerning the origin, evolution, and diversity of
life. These environments, in fact, could very well be models for how life
exists on other planets. In addition, black smokers are ore deposits in the
making, and they're iconic of very large-scale global processes. For instance,
they may hold a record of hydrothermal circulation in the mid-ocean ridge from
which they've been collected.
NOVA: How does it feel to be involved in planning and designing the Hall of
Mathez: I feel a certain sense of responsibility as the person leading the team
that is developing this exhibit to bring really exciting and new things to the
people that visit the museum, and a black smoker is definitely exciting and
new. And I feel proud and honored to have the opportunity to show off my
science, even my field, by having something that excites my colleagues and me
and will allow us to tell a story that very few people know or understand.
NOVA: What do you hope a black smoker might do for people visiting the new
Mathez: Exhibits inspire people. They force the imagination. At least they do
mine when I walk through the Hall of African Mammals, for example, and look at
those beautiful dioramas. My imagination is inspired, though I'm not sure I
know all the reasons for that. Perhaps one of them is because implicitly I see
that there's so much effort and passion put into them. I would hope that the
black smoker will inspire awe. Visitors will wonder at something that is not
part of their particular reality: "My God, this is part of the Earth. Isn't
that astonishing? Isn't that a wonderful thing?"