At one of the lowest points of the Caribbean sea lies a faultline, a rift in the ocean floor spreading apart slowly, issuing hot plumes of fluid from deep within the earth’s crust like a geyser underneath the ocean. At this depth, not much is known. Using underwater robots like HROV Nereus, oceanographers and astrobiologists are studying the organisms that live in these fertile and complex ecosystems, borderlands between the earth’s molten interior and the outer coolness of the sea. Understanding how exotic organisms can survive in such extreme environments — without solar energy, for example — can potentially provide critical insight into the essential ingredients needed to sustain life both on earth and other planets.
“It’s a window into the deeper part of the earth,’ says Jill McDermott, a doctoral student at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) who is studying the chemistry of these hydrothermal vents. Recently she collaborated with oil painter Bryan McFarlane as part the Synergy exhibit, a project bringing together artists and scientists sponsored by the Council for the Arts at MIT (earlier this month we profiled the work of textile artist Anastasia Azure and oceanographer Larry Pratt). After creating a series of large-scale oil paintings inspired by McDermott’s research, McFarlane, originally from Jamaica, was able to hop aboard the submarine during the crew’s port of call in Jamaica and witness the research process in action.
It’s here on the research ship, R/V Valkor, that McDermott and the team collect the samples that will form the basis of their research and analysis over the course of the next year at Woods Hole. For McFarlane to experience the intense and all-immersive reality of the research cruise was a unique opportunity, McDermott says. He had a taste of what it’s like to focus on scientific research twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, in an isolated ship in the Caribbean. “The whole rest of the world disappears,” says McDermott.
For McFarlane, McDermott’s research excites the imagination. He’s attracted to its mystery and mythological aura. “I respond basically with my most primary or primeval sense, my emotions and what I see,” McFarlane says. In communicating the visual, formal qualities of the fluids rising from these vents, he aims to recover the inherent wonder of the unknown. His artistic interpretations of the research, McDermott says, “give a broader meaning to what we’re working on.”
Both art and science involve imaginative leaps: conjecturing about the unknown and trying to represent and make sense of what might be found there. As WHOI’s Chief Scientist and project director Dr. Chris German summed up in his blog, “As Bryan put it rather eloquently: although much of the ocean is unknown, in his mind’s eye he can already project forward/downward to visualize what he thinks is down there. Which, now I think about it, isn’t really that far from what we do when making our deep ocean exploration plans.”
1. Hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean
2. Artist Bryan McFarlane (left) and Chief Scientist Chris German (right). McFarlane is showing German the underwater robot, Nereus, in a new light. In his lecture aboard ship, Bryan discussed the ongoing circle motif in his artwork. During his visit, he was drawn to the shape of Nereus’ lifting bridle. Photo: Jill McDermott
3. McDermott showing McFarlane the titanium fluid samplers that the team uses to collect high-temperature vent-fluids. Photo: Chris German
4. Falkor leaves port with HROV Nereus ready to explore. Photo: Colleen Peters