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Looking for the meaning of life at the bottom of the sea:

7 min read

Memorable moments come with wire breaks

Charles Langmuir on board the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy, the first United States surface ship to sail to the North Pole.

Charles Langmuir sailed to the top of the world to study the bottom of the ocean.

The newly appointed professor of geochemistry was following a gigantic crack in the ocean bottom that splits the floor of the Atlantic Ocean in two and extends around the Earth. He was aboard one of two icebreakers manned by scientists who were measuring the undersea ridge where the rift is located and taking samples of the animals that live in this unlikely place. Their work was ahead of schedule, weather was good, and the ice was thin so they decided to sail to the North Pole, if possible.

It was and they reached the top of the world on Sept. 6, 2001.

“It was a thrill,” Langmuir, 53, says. “We were on the first United States icebreaker to reach the North Pole.”

Crews and scientists aboard the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy and the German ship Polar Stern joined each other in a party. They drank cold beer and played soccer. Attached to a safety line, the most hardy swam briefly in the frigid water between ice floes. Lookouts armed with rifles kept polar bears from joining the party.

“Standing at the Pole is a slippery thing,” Langmuir explains. “The ice floes are constantly moving at speeds of about 2-3 miles an hour. One minute you’re at the top of the world, the next you’ve drifted away toward Greenland or Siberia.

“The ice that covers the Arctic Ocean was thin enough for us to have a successful expedition, and that probably was helped by global warming,” Langmuir commented. He and his colleagues were following the Gakkel Ridge, which runs from Iceland across the top of the planet to Siberia at a depth of about 3 miles. Submarines have crisscrossed the Arctic basin but the two icebreakers produced the first high-resolution map of the sea floor under the Arctic Ocean and North Pole.

Along the Gakkel Ridge, two parts of the sea floor are moving away from each other. Hot rock-making magma oozing up from below builds a new strip of ocean floor in the cold darkness between the pieces. Steaming water rising in the crack creates hot springs that support a weird assortment of animals, kept alive by heat and chemicals from the underlying volcanic material.

“We took samples of the animals and ridge rocks every day,” Langmuir noted. “Some of the shrimplike creatures we brought up were species that had never been seen before.”

Volcanic excitement

Langmuir loves going to sea. “It’s tremendously stimulating, wonderful, exciting, and eye-opening,” he says enthusiastically. “Every time I’ve gone since 1984, I’ve seen things I’ve never seen before. Sometimes, they’re things nobody has ever seen before. Teams of people keep the work going seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Their level of output and discovery is unmatched by anything that takes place in laboratories on land. There are no committee meetings; you don’t have to drive anywhere. The sunrises, sunsets, and star-filled nights are fabulous, so are the animals you see, from jellyfish to whales.”

Langmuir has explored volcanic ridges and rifts on the floors of four oceans. In 1993, he was chief scientist on an expedition that discovered the largest field of hot springs on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, south of the Azores Islands in 5,000 feet of water. He went down in a deep-diving submersible called Alvin to look at the rocks and strange creatures firsthand. The sponges, worms, clams, and insectlike crustaceans never see sunlight and eat bacteria and each other, rather than plants.

Asked about memorable experiences, Langmuir replies, “You have one every time a wire breaks. Thousands of feet of wire are lost along with expensive equipment on the end. On our trip to the Arctic, we lost two wires in the first 10 days of dredging. If you lose too much wire, you can’t reach the bottom. Two ships, 200 people, years of planning were at risk. Those were tense moments.”

When you make a living studying volcanic rocks, you have memorable moments on land as well as at sea.

While exploring in the Andes Mountains of Chile, Langmuir and some companions were about to set up their camp on a sandy flat on a valley floor. But for no particular reason, they decided to pitch their tents higher up. That night, a torrential downpour flushed through the valley. They saw lightning strike the cliffs above and heard huge boulders rolling down the valley. The raging waters flowed over the sandy flat where they first wanted to camp. Next morning, the site was littered with boulders, some of them the size of trucks.

Theater on the rocks

Langmuir comes from a science family. His father was a physicist, and an uncle, Irving Langmuir, won a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1932. In the ninth grade, he won the Los Angeles County science fair. However, he never intended to major in volcanoes.

As an undergraduate student at Harvard, Langmuir had two “loves”: science and the theater. His science was centered at first on biology and the history of science. Then in the second half of his junior year, he went to California to visit a woman he was dating. “She was working so I needed to find something to do during the day,” he recalls. “She had been a geology major, so she steered me to some geological sites in the area. I was so impressed that I started to take courses in geology when I got back to Harvard.”

After graduating in 1973, Langmuir won a traveling fellowship to study theater. “I went to Europe for a year, and to the theater almost every night,” he relates. “However, I decided that I would want to be involved with only about 1 percent of what I saw. So I decided to give geology a try.”

Langmuir earned a Ph.D. in geochemistry from the State University of New York, Stony Brook, in 1980. He went on to become a postdoctoral fellow, then a professor at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, a part of Columbia University. Since most of the Earth is covered with water, scientists at this place spend much of their time at sea.

“When I became an assistant professor there,” Langmuir says, “a friend told me, ‘If you work at Lamont, you really should go to sea.’ I did, and I was hooked.”

Despite more than 20 years at Lamont, Langmuir is glad to be back at Harvard. “I really missed the interaction with undergraduates,” he notes. “And many of the individuals in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences study things that overlap with my interests. For example, it’s an excellent place for me to look carefully at a major interest of the second half of my career, the relationship between man and Earth.”

Specifically, Langmuir wants to understand more about the interactions between the geologic processes that shape the planet, the atmosphere that envelops it, and the creatures that live on it. “We see ourselves as being on Earth to exploit the planet’s resources rather than as being an integral part of its natural evolution. Is intelligent life ultimately what a successful planet does? It’s common sense to see life as a natural part of planetary evolution, not only in the solar system but throughout the universe.

“Because of its broad academic excellence across so many fields, Harvard is a place where I can interact with people who are considering these questions from different perspectives. Isn’t that what a university is for?”