Robert Ballard, Ph.D.

National Humanities Medal


"Deep-sea archaeology is like finding an architectural site on Mars," says Robert Ballard, the man known for finding the world's most famous shipwreck, the RMS Titanic. "You can't buy a ticket to the deep sea; it's as alien and hostile as Mars. You need people who aren't terrified to go to Mars and who have the technology to do it. And those are the oceanographers. They work with the social scientists, the marine geologists. And together we read the chapters."

Ballard has been exploring these time capsules since 1959. At age seventeen he joined an oceanography program for high school students organized through San Diego's Scripps Institute. "We almost sank," he remembers. "But I was immortal and I was hooked on the adventure. All around me were PhDs. I knew if I wanted to continue this adventure, it would be a long haul."

This life-altering experience sent Ballard in pursuit of higher education. After obtaining degrees in geology and chemistry from the University of California, he attended graduate school at the University of Southern California and the University of Hawai'i. He received a PhD in marine geology and geophysics from the University of Rhode Island. He served in the Vietnam War and in the U.S. Naval Reserve as a commander before resigning his commission in 2001.

A flood of letters from schoolchildren after his 1985 discovery of the Titanic led him to found the Jason Project four years later. The project's curriculum allows children in grades four through nine to participate in real-time scientific expeditions, using satellite and distance-learning applications. More than 1.5 million children will participate this year.

"Science used to be a punitive experience--you're going to take this test-- it was a weeding out process, grueling, not for the fainthearted," says Ballard. "But technology has become so pervasive, everyone needs some level of scientific knowledge." Ballard uses his submarine robots and sunken ships to draw them in. "Kids love adventure!" he says. "The difference between an explorer and an adventurer is observation. Explorers keep records--they log everything they do. And exploration is not in our past, it's in our future. This generation is going to explore more of earth than all previous generations."

To do that, they will need math and science, subjects that American children lag behind in when compared with students from other industrialized countries. "You can't sell kids on math," says Ballard. "You have to sell them on something that requires math. Adventure is the game. Math is the mental push-ups that you have to do before the game."

Ballard looks beyond the hard sciences, however. "I've always had a passion for history. I think all humans do. Where did we come from?" This interdisciplinary approach is crucial to his work. "The book I'm reading now is about economy and exchange in the eastern Mediterranean in ancient antiquity," he says. "It's all about the opportunity to keep learning. History is a moving target. We don't know where it's going to be next."

After one hundred and ten deep-sea expeditions, he is enthusiastic about future projects. "The deep sea is a tremendous preserver. Cultural objects are in suspended animation," he says. "The number of shipwrecks approaches one million, and the ships of antiquity are perfect time capsules."

By Cynthia Barnes

About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.