SCIENCE

Exploring history

Taking a trip to the depths of Lake Ontario

NORA UNDERWOOD May 14 1990
SCIENCE

Exploring history

Taking a trip to the depths of Lake Ontario

NORA UNDERWOOD May 14 1990

Exploring history

SCIENCE

Taking a trip to the depths of Lake Ontario

In the early hours of Aug. 8, 1813, a sudden squall blew over Lake Ontario. Two U.S. warships, the 73-foot Hamilton and the 57-foot Scourge, which were preparing to go into action against British vessels, sank, taking 53 crew members to their deaths. Since then, the ships, involved in the War of 1812, have been preserved in nearperfect condition in the frigid water about 300 feet below the surface near Port Dalhousie,

Ont., about 50 km south of Toronto. In an unusual 13-day venture that began last week, thousands of North American students watched as U.S. marine scientist Robert Ballard launched the first systematic survey of the historic site. Ballard, 47, who discovered the rusted wreck of the Titanic in 1985 and the German ship Bismarck in 1989, said that he was elated to find the ships in such good condition. Declared Ballard: “The ships are a hundred years older than the Titanic. And yet they look like they were built yesterday.” Using underwater television cameras, Ballard and his 30-member team transmitted a pictorial record of their underwater survey live by satellite to 12 U.S. museums and science centres, and to the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto and the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria. Students were able to ask

Ballard questions over a fibre-optics voice linkup and some, using remote control equipment, helped guide the 2,400-lb. picture-taking robot, nicknamed Jason, as it surveyed the ships.

Ballard, who is the director of the Center for Marine Exploration at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass., said that the purposes of the expedition were scientific and historical. For the in-depth study, the expedition is using Jason and an unmanned

underwater vehicle called Medea to examine and photograph the two wrecks. Equipment on Jason projects laser beams on parts of the ships to produce images that can then be used to build a computerized model of the ship.

Ballard said that his other goal in studying the ships is to share the sense of scientific discovery with young people and encourage their interest in mathematics and science. Ballard said that young people’s interest in the subjects has suffered over the years, in part because children see scientists as “nerds.” By letting them witness the expedition as it happens, he said, “we want them to say, ‘Look what fun they’re having.’ ” Added Ballard: “Math is like mental pushups. The point is, we’ve got to make the game worth playing.”

NORA UNDERWOOD