Book Review: The final frontier

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Robert D. Ballard
Updated 19 May 2017
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Book Review: The final frontier

In 1968, the astronauts on their way to the moon took a stunning photograph of the Earth.
That photograph revealed the vastness of the oceans: 97 percent of the volume of space in which life exists lies deep beneath the water’s surface — a world devoid of light, a realm of eternal darkness.
Robert Ballard has written a gripping account of the history of deep-sea exploration, which has been republished with a new preface.
Deep-sea exploration began on June 11, 1930, when Charles William Beebe and Otis Barton descended 1,426 feet in a diving chamber known as a bathysphere. It measured 4 feet, 9 inches in diameter and would take in only two passengers who entered head first through a 15-inch circular opening. The interior was bare except for two small oxygen tanks, which kept the air sweet for eight hours.
Apparently, Beebe and Barton used palm-leaf fans to circulate the air during their first dives. The bathysphere attached to a 3,500-foot long steel cable was lifted and lowered by a steam-powered winch.
During the first attempt, Beebe felt totally crushed in the small capsule, but he remembered Houdini’s relaxation technique. He regulated his breathing and spoke in low tones – this calmed him down. When they reached a depth of 400 feet, Beebe noticed some water trickling beneath the door but he knew that the door was solid enough. He realized that higher pressure outside the bathysphere would only seal it more tightly and instead of canceling the dive, he ordered a quicker descent. At a depth of 600 feet, the water took a shade of blue, which Beebe described as “the blueness of the blue” and seemed to penetrate, materially through the eye, into our beings.”
On that first dive, they finally reached a depth of 1,426 feet. When Beebe and Barton ended their dives in 1934, they had achieved a depth of 3,028 feet. William Beebe later wrote: “When once it has been seen (the deep ocean), it will remain forever the most vivid memory in life.”
Twenty years would pass before a loss of momentum gave way to a renewed interest in the exploration of the deep abyss. Venturing at such great depths required a different kind of diving craft. It needed to be stronger and heavier to withstand greater pressure, and also easier to lift back to the surface.
In 1937, during a reception he was attending, the Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard told King Leopold III of Belgium that he was planning to build a bathyscaph to reach the bottom of the sea. The king was interested and asked for more information. The following day, Piccard met with his assistants. “I told the king yesterday that we are going to build a bathyscaph. We have no choice now but to do it.” While Picard was building “Trieste,” the French were also creating their own version of a bathyscaph. A race had begun. In 1948, both the French and Piccard’s bathyscaphs had reached a depth of more than two miles.
The Americans decided then to join Auguste and Jacques Piccard’s team and take part in the race. The US was already competing against the Soviet Union for the conquest of space and also wanted to dominate the race to the deepest spot in the world – Challenger Deep, 35,800 feet below the ocean surface. Challenger Deep was considered the Mount Everest of the ocean and a descent into the dark depths of the Mariana Trench was the ultimate goal within the small group of deep-sea explorers.
To make sure “Trieste” would be ready to reach the bottom of Challenger Deep, Jacques Piccard decided to build a new pressure sphere for the bathyscaph, which should be able to withstand up to nine tons of pressure per square inch. The day of the big dive had been set for Jan. 23, 1960. At 8 a.m. Piccard and his American co-passenger boarded the Trieste but they discovered that during the tow, pounding waves had washed away part of a surface telephone making it impossible to communicate with the support team once the two men were sealed inside. There was no time to repair because the return was planned before dark.
If they surfaced at night, the support crew might not locate them. At 8:23 a.m. the descent began. When they reached a depth of 36,000 feet, the “abyssal cold had penetrated the bathyscaph’s heavy Krupp steel, chilling everything. Tension rose inside the tiny capsule, which now seemed more like a spherical coffin dripping with water,” wrote Ballard. At last, the depth gauge showed 37,800 feet.
However, later Piccard and Walsh discovered that the gauge had been calibrated in Switzerland, in fresh water. Their real depth was 35,800 feet. Lying on the bottom, Piccard saw a flat fish resembling a sole, and that made him extremely happy. Life exists at such a depth. Piccard and Walsh shook hands. They had succeeded. They began their ascent and reached the surface at 4:56 p.m. The race to the bottom of the ocean had come to an end and deep-sea exploration could begin.
In the 1960s, Jacques Cousteau, a writer, scientist, inventor, researcher and filmmaker would familiarize the world with deep-sea exploration thanks to an amazing diving saucer. Cousteau got the idea for this diving machine during a meeting in his ship’s mess.
While he was talking to the members of his team, he picked up two soup plates and held them together, explaining that a saucer with enough space for one or two people would be easy to maneuver, and it would also be light enough to be carried on board Calypso.
“Pay no attention to speed,” Cousteau said. “It isn’t needed in an exploring submarine. We want agility, perfect trim, tight turns and hovering ability. Let the men look out with their eyes and make them more comfortable than the awkward kneeling attitude in the bathyscaph.”
The “Soucoupe” took several years to make but it would become the prototype of all modern submersibles. It resembled no other vehicle on earth. It didn’t have any propellers, rudder or planes to drive the hull through water. This strange looking saucer was able to climb and dive at near-vertical angles unlike most deep submersibles to follow.
Cousteau was also a talented photographer.
He had known for a long time that it was necessary to separate the camera from its light source and this enabled him to produce some superb documents like “The Silent World,” which won a Palm d’Or at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. Cousteau also produced a famous series of documentaries, “The Odyssey of the Cousteau Team.”
By the early 1980s, the majority of scientists in the oceanographic community had never been in a submersible. Thanks to a high-capacity fiber optic tether a large network of scientists can participate in deep-sea operations from shore-based satellite receiving centers simultaneously with the team in the control center aboard the research ship.
“Right now, in the deep sea, two eras overlap. Robots are sending views from the bottom with laser-light pulses through fibers of glass while humans are still descending in hard little spheres, surrounded by syntactic foam.
In the long run, those submersibles may be doomed, but I see no reason to rush them into early retirement,” concluded Ballard.
To this day, more than 95 percent of the world’s oceans remain unexplored, and less than 1 percent of all the seafloor has been observed. Yet a better understanding of the ocean is vital to ensure our survival.
The “Eternal Darkness, a Personal History of Deep Sea Exploration” is told by Robert Ballard who found the Titanic and ventured in the mid-Atlantic ridge. He has done more than any other person to shed light on the ocean depths.

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’No place for a mother’: S. Korea battles to raise birth rate

(FILES) This photo taken on March 22, 2016 shows a child gesturing to a woman at Dongdaemun Design Plaza in Seoul. (AFP)
Updated 18 December 2018
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’No place for a mother’: S. Korea battles to raise birth rate

  • Now 27, she has been rejected at several job interviews as soon as she revealed she had a child, and has given up seeking employment, trying to set up her own trading business instead

SEOUL: When Ashley Park started her marketing job at a Seoul drugmaker she had a near-perfect college record, flawless English, and got on well with her colleagues — none of which mattered to her employer once she fell pregnant.
Nine months after she joined, Park said, “They said to my face that there is no place in the company for a woman with a child, so I needed to quit.”
All the women working at the firm were single or childless, she suddenly realized, and mostly below 40.
Park’s case exemplifies why so many South Korean women are put off marriage and childbirth, pushing the country’s birth rate — one of the world’s lowest — ever further down.
Earlier this month Seoul announced its latest set of measures to try to stem the decline, but critics say they will have little to no effect in the face of deep-seated underlying causes.
Many South Korean firms are reluctant to employ mothers, doubting their commitment to the company and fearing that they will not put in the long hours that are standard in the country — as well as to avoid paying for their legally-entitled birth leave.
When Park refused to quit, her boss relentlessly bullied her — banning her from attending business meetings and ignoring her at the office “like I was an invisible ghost” — and management threatened to fire her husband, who worked at the same company.
After fighting for about six months, she finally relented and offered her resignation, giving birth to a daughter a month later. Aside from a brief stint at an IT start-up that did not keep its promise of flexible working hours, she has been a stay-at-home mother ever since.
“I studied and worked so hard for years to get a job when youth unemployment was so high, and enjoyed my work so much... and look what happened to me,” Park told AFP.
Now 27, she has been rejected at several job interviews as soon as she revealed she had a child, and has given up seeking employment, trying to set up her own trading business instead.
“The government kept telling women to have more children... but how, in a country like this?” she asked.

The South’s fertility rate — the number of children a woman is expected to have in her lifetime — fell to 0.95 in the third quarter of 2018, the first time it has dropped below 1 and far short of the 2.1 needed to maintain stability.
As a result of the trend, which has been dubbed a “birth strike” by women, the population of the world’s 11th largest economy, currently 51 million, is expected to start falling in 2028.
Many cite reasons ranging from the expense of child-rearing, high youth unemployment, long working hours and limited daycare to career setbacks for working mothers.
Even if women hold on to their jobs, they bear a double burden of carrying out the brunt of household chores.
Patriarchal values remain deeply ingrained in the South: nearly 85 percent of South Korean men back the idea of women working, according to a state survey, but that plummets to 47 percent when asked whether they would support their own wives having a job.
Employment rates for married men and women are dramatically different — 82 percent and 53 percent respectively.
Now nearly three-quarters of South Korean women aged 20-40 see marriage as unnecessary, an opinion poll by a financial magazine and a recruitment website showed. But almost all children in the South are born in wedlock.

Against that backdrop, the South’s government has spent a whopping 136 trillion won ($121 billion) since 2005 to try to boost the birth rate, mostly through campaigns to encourage more young people to wed and reproduce, without success.
Earlier this month it announced yet another round of measures.
They included expanding child subsidies of up to 300,000 won ($270) a month, and allowing parents with children younger than eight to work an hour less each day to take care of their offspring.
More daycare centers and kindergartens will be built, and men will be allowed — but not obliged — to take 10 days of paid birth leave, up from the current three.
But many measures were not legally binding and carried no punishment for firms that denied their workers the promised benefits, and the package met a disdainful response.
“The government policies are based on this simplistic assumption that ‘if we give more money, people would have more children’,” the Korea Women Workers Association said in a statement.
Seoul should first address “relentless sexual discrimination at work and the double burden of work and housechores” for women, it added.
The centrist Korea Times newspaper also questioned whether such “lacklustre” state policies would bring in real change unless the government tackled the real drivers of women shunning marriage and childbirth.
“Unless these harsh conditions for women change, no amount of government subsidies will convince women having children is a happy choice.”