The most famous scientific submersible ever to share a name
with an animated chipmunk was officially commissioned forty-two years ago
this week. On June 5, 1964, the deep submergence vehicle (DSV) Alvin entered into service, and in the
intervening decades has carved out arguably the most distinguished operational
record in the history of undersea research. Capt. Nemo,
eat your heart out.

If you’ve never heard of Alvin
(which is a black mark on your geek record, by the way), you’re certainly
familiar with its work. It was Alvin,
accompanied by the robotic undersea probe Jason
, which was the first to make detailed explorations of the wreck of the RMS Titanic. (Alvin did not actually discover the wreck; that distinction went to
the robotic camera sled Argo.)
Short of the cinematic works of James Cameron, Alvin‘s visuals are probably the most well known photographic
evidence of the Titanic‘s

Despite its civilian accomplishments for the Woods Hole
Oceanographic Institute, Alvin is
actually a military asset. The United States Navy built and owns Alvin, and loans it to Woods Hole, which
merely operates it. As such, it is the (now somewhat hoary) product of some
rather advanced submersible technology—specifically syntactic foam, a
composite of micrometer-sized glass spheres that are both lightweight and
hyper-resistant to compression—that allows Alvin
to reach crewed depths of 4500 meters (roughly 15,000 feet).

Despite its technical advantages, Alvin still suffered at the hands of bad luck. On Oct. 16, 1968, Alvin
was lost at sea. Its original deploy structure was little more than a steel
cable suspended between two metal pontoons. When the cable snapped—with the
hatch open and a crew aboard—Alvin
sank in 2000-foot waters and was lost for months. The crew managed to escape,
but an unlikely and highly biodegradable personal item remained onboard—and
perfectly preserved by the unique properties of the extreme ocean depths.


What unlikely, biodegradable personal item was perfectly
preserved when the Alvin DSV was lost
at sea for several months in 1969?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you nature’s hardiest survivor: A
bologna sandwich. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute’s own Web site
describes the sandwiches which sat within Alvin
from October 1968 to Labor Day 1969 as “soggy but edible.” The secrets
to this unlikely preservation were the extreme cold and low oxygen levels of
the waters, which supported few of the microorganisms that normally spoil your
refrigerated leftovers. (No word on precisely what role the nitrate
preservatives in the bologna itself might have played.) Alvin itself didn’t fare so well, requiring over a year to refit
after recovery.

Hardly Alvin‘s most
celebrated discovery, but considering the DSV’s
resumé, you can understand why.

On Mar. 15, 1966, the Alvin
team located a lost hydrogen bomb on the sea floor off the coast of Palomares, Spain. (The bomb was lost when its transport
bomber suffered a midair collision over the Mediterranean.) Besides going into
the record books for recovery of the H-bomb—which U.S. Defense Secretary
Robert McNamara valued at $2 billion—the mission was notable for its use of
Bayesian search theory. Submarines, nuclear weapons, and
probability, oh my.

In April of 1979, Alvin
and its crew made the first discovery of so-called black smokers—undersea
hydrothermal vents that produce superheated seawater. In essence, the vents heat seawater to well above its boiling point, but remains
liquid due to the extreme depth pressure. Besides the discovery of the black
smokers themselves, Alvin‘s
observations helped prove that microorganisms can survive in these harsh
environs. Flora and fauna that can invoke chemosynthesis
instead of photosynthesis as the basis of a food chain are of interest not just
to marine biologists, but astronomers (and science fiction writers) looking for
signs of life on other planets.

In July of 1986, the whole Titanic thing went down. Celine Dion was not involved, though her publicist may claim
otherwise. No elaborately designed blue-diamond necklaces were found on the
ocean floor, either. We leave such things to sub-par movies, not submarine Geek

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Quibble of the week

If you uncover a
questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it
in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the
best post from our assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek

This week’s quibble comes from the May 10, 2006 edition of
Geek Trivia, “Measures
for leisure
.” Member gsquared earned special recognition (and a rarified TR mug)
for calculating a reasonable Watts-to-Gillette conversion for measuring laser

“First, we need the albedo of
a Gillette razorblade. That’s the ratio of light absorbed vs. light reflected.
(I did an online search, but couldn’t find this.) Assuming an albedo of .9 (polished metal surfaces are pretty
reflective), that means that your laser’s energy will be 90% reflected, 10%
absorbed. Then we need the specific heat of a Gillette razor. How many calories
does it take to heat one gram by one degree Celsius? Steel varies in this
regard depending on its carbon content and other components. Iron is .11, so
I’ll assume it’s around that amount. Then we need the number of grams of metal
we’re talking about burning through. Let’s assume half a gram for now. (7-9
grams/cubic centimeter for various grades of steel; the desired hole would be
about 1 cm wide I’m guessing, and less than 1 mm thick, which would make it
approx .1 cubic centimeter, or about .7 grams.) Boiling point is around 3,000
degrees C. So, we need to heat .5 grams of steel to 3,000 degrees, specific
heat of .11, heat of vaporization around 340/gram, from about 30 degrees.
163.35 to 3000, 170 to vaporize, call it 340 calories. Then, because of the albedo factor, we have to multiply that by 10 (90%
reflected) = 3,400 calories. If we’re talking about a 1 second pulse, that’s 3,400 watts/Gillette. If it’s a .1 second pulse, that’s
34,000 watts. If it’s a 2 second pulse, it’s 1,700 watts. Just depends on the
length of the pulse. (Please note that the actual heat, density and albedo characteristics of steel may vary from what I’ve
assumed, but the math is still solid.) So, yes, it is possible to convert from Gillettes to watts.”

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who’s duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.