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posted 01/26/05

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The Real Life Aquatic
Director James Cameron’s New IMAX Film Puts Columbia Scientist in the Deep Sea

(l to r) IMAX film director James Cameron, producer Andrew Wight, co-director Steve Quale, Lamont-Doherty scientist and film consultant Maya Tolstoy. Tolstoy consulted and appeared in the new IMAX film "Aliens of the Deep."

by David Porrata

James Cameron, who has won Academy Awards for Titanic and The Terminator, has a passion for deep-sea science that fueled his most recent work, the science documentary "Aliens of the Deep," which is to be released in IMAX theatres across the country, and features Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory scientist Maya Tolstoy.

Using astrobiology — the study of life on other worlds — "Aliens of the Deep" studies the exotic creatures living along deep-sea thermal vent sites for clues on how life may have originated on earth.

Tolstoy — sometimes appearing in the movie in a tiny submarine in the deep sea — is a marine seismologist who studies how water flowing through thermal vents captures minerals and nutrients which then feed the life gathered at the vents. The complex chemical activity and biological communities abundant at these thermal vents is a major subject of the research. (You’ve probably seen these mesmerizing eerie images on TV documentaries). Her work indicates that subterranean secrets of biochemical activity on display at deep-sea sites may one day reveal the processes and origins of earliest life on earth, and possibly beyond.

Learning how these vents work is a crucial component to understanding how the planet was, and continues to be, formed, and offers the added bonus of potentially explaining how life may exist elsewhere in the universe. What happens ‘down there” sheds possible light on life ‘out there.’

Through a circuitous series of events, Cameron knew of Tolstoy’s marine seismic work at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, part of The Earth Institute at Columbia University. The director called Tolstoy and asked her to sign on for the "Aliens" voyage, both as technical advisor and on-screen talent.

For Tolstoy the timing was not only idyllic, but offered some other unique opportunities. Explains Tolstoy, “I’d just received funding by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to deploy an array of ocean floor seismometers to study undersea quakes." (Tolstoy also studies mid-ocean ridge earthquakes). "I learned about my funding in June of 2003. Normally there can be a long lag-time between receiving research money and actually getting research equipment into the field. It could have taken at least a year to get that experiment scheduled on a research ship. But Jim’s cruise on the research vessel Keldysh allowed me to get instruments in the water by September 2003, so we got a real head start. This is particularly exciting at this site, between the Gulf of California and southern New Zealand, where the indications are that it’s heating up and an eruption could happen at any time.”

Thanks to the NSF grant, Tolstoy is deploying the ocean bottom seismometers, which will study at great depth one of three mid-ocean ridge sites. The site featured in "Aliens," referred to as ‘9-North, is in an area called the ‘East Pacific Rise,’ which runs roughly from the Gulf of California to south New Zealand. ’By placing monitoring instrumentation at these three sites, scientists hope to capture a seafloor eruption that might otherwise go unnoticed except by some 2-meter long tube worms, mussels or crabs. Capturing the actual process of new (tectonic) plate formation is fundamental: understanding how plates are formed is essentially getting a sneak-peek into the workings of the Earth’s basic building blocks.

With 25 research cruises under her belt, Tolstoy is no stranger to the sea. But being chosen to join the crew of "Aliens" offered an entirely new experience, aside from six weeks aboard the Keldysh. If you think the movie business is a unique world, imagine shooting a documentary about sea-floor life. It means, being on the ocean floor—and that means mini-subs. (Think dank, dark, wee can, under tons of pressure).

Despite her research-cruise veteran status, Tolstoy admits being thrilled at participating in this project, diving to the seafloor in a mini submarine and working with such an exceptional film team. In "Aliens," Tolstoy is first seen lowering equipment overboard then, later and about two miles below the surface, we see her in the mini-sub, talking about the seafloor. The sub hovers directly above a black plume of vent-smoke, which, she says “at its hottest point is about 400 degrees Celsius.”

“Cameron is amazingly impressive in his command of the science issues, he’s more than capable of holding his own in a scientific conversation and really grasps the details of what’s important, and why. In some ways he pushed me to be a better scientist, by asking the hard questions, and pushing for the greater meaning behind it all. We’re exceptionally lucky to have someone of his obvious film-making talents take such an interest in this topic, and really hope that the film will raise public awareness of the importance of the work done by myself and institutes such as Lamont-Doherty.”

Adds Tolstoy, “I hope the film gets young people excited about science and exploration, because science is exploration.”

It’s Friday morning. Tolstoy’s just red-eyed from the "Aliens" L.A. premier, (the film opens in New York on Jan. 28). She’s tired, but clearly ebullient, already thinking of her next project. Responding to a NASA request, she and some Lamont-Doherty colleagues just submitted a white paper (basically a "call for opinions") suggesting that if you’re going to search for life on Mars, or anywhere in our solar system, one indispensable aspect of the research must involve deploying seismometer equipment to detect where quakes and volcanic activity are occurring.

To learn about activities at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory:

Aliens of the Deep Web site: (To see the Tolstoy profile: Click on the ‘Exploration’ bar, then ‘Scientists’

The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, a member of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, is one of the world's leading research centers examining the planet from its core to its atmosphere, across every continent and every ocean. From global climate change to earthquakes, volcanoes, environmental hazards and beyond, Observatory scientists provide the basic knowledge of Earth systems needed to inform the future health and habitability of our planet.

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is the world’s leading academic center for the integrated study of Earth, its environment and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines—earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences—and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world’s poor. For more information, visit