Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Beyond the edge of the sea: art and science from the ocean's deep

The National Science Foundation is the main source of basic research funding for science and engineering in the United States. But on the third floor of the NSF one can find a fascinating interface between science and art. Until the end of this month, the Art of Science, a committee of volunteers interested in the meeting of the worlds of science and art, hosts a traveling exhibit called Beyond the Edge of the Sea, a collection of watercolor illustrations of the fantastical marine life found around deep-sea hydrothermal vents during expeditions in the deep-ocean submersible, Alvin. The exhibit is the product of a partnership between illustrator Karen Jacobsen and oceanographer Dr. Cindy Lee Van Dover. Both were at the NSF this week to talk about their work in Alvin and the process of observing and collecting samples at great depths, a few thousand meters below sea level, and the process of capturing the images by watercolor.

The scientist (back to us).
The artist.

Some of my favorite drawings are one with notes from the artist, most of which are technical notes, but there is a tone of excitement, curiosity and fascination which combined with the beautiful illustrations make this exhibit so compelling.

As magical as the visual aspects of the sea-life around ocean vents are, equally awe-inspiring is the fact that this life exists without the need for the sun. Even organisms in caves derive energy from the sun, since their food sources are ultimately derived from life above ground. Sea vent organisms derive energy from the chemicals that emerge from the hot vents, and the bacteria that live there that are able to produce organic matter with them through a process called chemosynthesis.

Next stop for the exhibit: Madison, Wisconsin. Be on the look out for this magic visit from the ocean's deeps. You can get a preview of the images here.  For more detailed information on the biology and geology and chemistry of the vents, refer to this easy-to-read guide (PDF).

UPDATE: A recent story on NPR on "The Deep-sea Find That Changed Biology".