Desktop Diaries: Sylvia Earle

A moray eel, a flock of geese and a shrunken head are just a few of the things found in and around Her Deepness' office. Earle, an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic, has desks all over the country. A few months ago we stopped by her Oakland home-base for the next installment in our Desktop Diaries series.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

Flora Lichtman is here with our Video Pick of the Week. Hi, Flora.

FLORA LICHTMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: What have you got for us this week?

LICHTMAN: This week, we've got something special: shrunken heads, a life-sized green moray, a submarine factory, a visit to Sylvia Earle's house. What else?

FLATOW: Well, of course.

LICHTMAN: Where else would you find all those things together?

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: It's the next installment in our series of Desktop Diaries. Remember, this is where we go...

FLATOW: Hmm, of course.

LICHTMAN: ...to the - this inspiring scientist's house and then pull information out of them based on their desk trinkets.

FLATOW: Not everybody has a moray eel looking at you.

LICHTMAN: Looks right over. She calls it her mentor, Dr. Earle does, and it's huge and right over the computer there. And there are many things that, you know, you might expect to find in someone who loves the oceans house. This is her place in Oakland. And she has desks, by the way, everywhere. So this is only the tip of the iceberg here.

But, you know, just marine life everywhere, things that she's found while diving. My favorite sort of ornament of the office were these shrunken heads and shrunken Styrofoam cups, And you might be able to guess how they shrunk. This is someone who specializes in going down in submarines, so she basically...

FLATOW: She takes the cup and takes it down with her.

LICHTMAN: Yes, but it doesn't get to ride inside, and that's why it shrinks. So the pressure makes it smaller, but it sounds like a real rite of passage for these deep-sea explorers.

FLATOW: So - yeah. They all do that. Something that starts out the size of a normal eight ounce Styrofoam cup, winds up like a thimble, right?

LICHTMAN: It's tiny. And she has, you know, tons, dozens that she had...

FLATOW: I hadn't heard of the shrunken head version, though, but I knew...

LICHTMAN: That was beyond. When she said, and here's my shrunken head, we both - Christopher Intagliata who's the producer was there with me, too, and we were like, what?

FLATOW: I'm afraid to ask you, it's the head of what?

LICHTMAN: It was, you know, a hat holder, a mannequin head.

FLATOW: Oh. Oh, oh, oh. It's Styrofoam.

LICHTMAN: It was Styrofoam as well.

FLATOW: Oh, it's like for a wig. You put a wig.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, we should clear that up.

FLATOW: Oh, I'm not sure whose head.

LICHTMAN: Anyway, you can see the details on this on our video pick this week.

FLATOW: It's up on our website at sciencefriday.com as our Video Pick of the Week up there on the right side.

LICHTMAN: But, you know, the thing that was really amazing, so Sylvia Earle has been doing this for, you know, five or six decades now. And she's just still so excited when she talks about her work. And it makes sense sort of given her philosophy about what makes a scientist.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

DR. SYLVIA EARLE: I'm asked sometimes, how did you get to be a biologist? How did you get to be a scientist? How did you get to be an explorer? And I say, it's really easy. You start out as a little kid, and then you never grow up.

LICHTMAN: And this couldn't...

FLATOW: Oh.

LICHTMAN: ...be more true for Dr. Earle. She just seems still so curious about the work and so excited about the work. We also got to take a trip to DOER Marine - which is also in Oakland, and it's a company that Dr. Earle started and now her daughter runs - and see some of the submersibles that they've made and some of the prototypes for what they're working on now because, you know, she wants to go to the deepest part of the ocean, still is working towards this.

And at one point, there's this big - you walk in and it's this huge sort of warehouse, and there are all these cool machines everywhere and these giant pictures of Sylvia in a JIM suit, which is a sort of bubbly astronaut suit. And in the corner, there's this ball, this clear plastic globe, and it's sitting on a mount. So it's about 4 feet off the ground. And, you know, one of the first things Dr. Earle said was, would you like me to get in it?

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: And this is part of a - sort of the submarine mock-up. So we have a little tape of her in the globe.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

EARLE: It's a great place to dream, a great place to think about what it will take to go to full ocean depth, to go find Jim Cameron's footprint.

LICHTMAN: She's talking about James Cameron, who we had on the show...

FLATOW: Right, right.

LICHTMAN: ...a couple of months ago.

FLATOW: She wants to go down there also...

LICHTMAN: Absolutely.

FLATOW: ...find some footprints.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. She said she's mentioned this to Jim Cameron. Maybe she could use his sub.

FLATOW: Well, she does hold records for deep-sea diving, right?

LICHTMAN: Absolutely. I mean, actually, this is - I remember one of the first SCIENCE FRIDAYs I ever heard was Dr. Earle talking about that untethered trip she took where she was wearing this gym suit and it really is sort of a bulky marshmallow-man suit...

FLATOW: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: ...1,200 feet down and set the record in '79 for one of the deepest, I think, untethered walking on the sea floor. I just remember how inspiring it was to hear about that. And she set, yeah, many records in her time.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow here with Flora Lichtman. We're talking about her latest desktop diary about Sylvia Earle, the undersea explorer. And she is still - on the video, it's up there on our website at sciencefriday.com, and you see her jump into this globe like she's 12, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: Absolutely. I mean, really, I was thinking could I get in that globe? I'm not really sure. And, you know, her daughter was there and when we asked, you know, well, it's OK for you to get in, and her daughter said, oh, we can't keep her out, which was a revealing, nice moment.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. But she still is one of the great defenders of the oceans.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, I mean, she absolutely is, and I think spends - seems to spend a lot of time working on this. And you can tell that it's the thing where she loves the ocean. You know, anyone who talks to Sylvia Earle can tell that, I think, and I think got sort of stuck with this job of defending it, you know, because...

FLATOW: Yeah. She'd rather be down there.

LICHTMAN: It seems, you know, I don't want to speak for Dr. Earle...

FLATOW: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: ...but it certainly seemed like if she could be spending all her time exploring and not being on the defensive...

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah.

LICHTMAN: ...she would. But, you know, this has become her charge now because she loves it so much.

FLATOW: And as you say, she's in the submarine-building business too.

LICHTMAN: This is something I didn't know, but she started three companies. And this was sort of a shocking revelation for me anyway. To actually do this kind of exploration, you need to figure out how to build the submarines yourself according to Dr. Earle because there's just not money for this publicly.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

LICHTMAN: So you have to find people who need the sub for some other reason, you start the company to build it, and then you lease it back, or this was the case for Dr. Earle, to do your own exploration.

FLATOW: Yeah, that's what Jim Cameron said. He said, no one's going to build it for me.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, that's right.

FLATOW: We have to get our, you know, put our own funding into this because - and Sylvia will tell you and she's told us many times, you know, we know more about the backside of the moon than we know about the deepest canyons in the ocean.

LICHTMAN: And she mentioned this, too, that, you know, we care about exploring space to some degree anyway.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

LICHTMAN: But when it comes to exploring the ocean, you really have to find another way to do it. There's just - although we see that, too, in space as well.

FLATOW: Yeah. And so you got free reign of her many desks to go out and explore her out there.

I hope we can go see another desk.

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: I feel like I could easily spend many more days getting to know Sylvia Earle. She was a really gracious host, I have to say. We had to go to another shoot after this one, and Dr. Earle came back and delivered us snacks because she was worried that we didn't have lunch.

FLATOW: She's the mother of the oceans, mother who takes care...

LICHTMAN: It was above and beyond.

FLATOW: Above and beyond.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Yeah. And she has certainly collected a lot - you can see in your video up on our website, she has collected a lot of tchotchkes, as you would say, along the way, right?

LICHTMAN: Over the years. Absolutely. One of the things I liked was this dagger that she found diving and, you know, there were other sort of things from the deep sea as well, beautiful pieces of coral and things like that. But I don't think she collects much of that anymore.

FLATOW: People give her stuff and she...

LICHTMAN: Yeah.

FLATOW: In the video, she has this wonderful giant octopus, is it, this octopus on her desk?

LICHTMAN: Yeah. And that one - she said that it reached out a tentacle and grabbed her. It was at the American Museum of Natural History, I think...

FLATOW: She goes to the museum shop.

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: Yeah, she says she does a lot of her shopping at museum stores.

FLATOW: You can find Sylvia trolling museum stores.

LICHTMAN: That's right. Keep your eyes open next time you're there.

FLATOW: If you see this perky woman, you know, a deep-sea diver looking for interesting new underwater stuff, that'll be Sylvia Earle and...

LICHTMAN: Yeah. Or at the bottom of the sea.

FLATOW: Or at...

LICHTMAN: That's where I can't wait to see Dr. Earle next.

FLATOW: Yeah. I can't wait for her to finish up one of those new submarines...

LICHTMAN: Me too.

FLATOW: ...and get down there. Maybe we could do a live broadcast. Wouldn't that be something, from the bottom of the ocean?

LICHTMAN: That would be...

FLATOW: We've done astronauts in the International Space Station. Now we have to go in the other direction.

LICHTMAN: We've got to go in the other direction.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to aim for that. Thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: Flora Lichtman, our Video Pick of the Week, a Desktop Diary.

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