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Aliens of the Deep: The Real Life Aquatic
From left: film director James Cameron, producer Andrew Wight, co-director Steve Quale and Lamont-Doherty scientist and film consultant Maya Tolstoy

As a Lamont-Doherty marine seismologist, Maya Tolstoy keeps her research interests trained on the volcanic sites at the bottom of the ocean. Her work indicates that subterranean secrets of biochemical activity on display at deep-sea sites may one day reveal the processes and origins of earliest life on earth, and possibly beyond. Now Tolstoy is bringing some Hollywood flash to the darkest depths of the ocean floor.

Tolstoy studies marine seismology, specifically mid-ocean ridge earthquakes and how water flowing through thermal vents captures minerals and nutrients, which then feed the life gathered at the vents. The complex chemical activity and biological communities abundant at these thermal vents holds the answers, says Tolstoy, to a host of perplexing questions about the origins of earth and current oceanographic phenomena.

Chains of seafloor volcanoes wrap around the globe for thousands of miles and are responsible for creating two thirds of the planet's surface. Learning how these vents work is a crucial component to understanding how the planet was, and continues to be, formed and offers the added bonus of potentially explaining how life may exist elsewhere in the universe. What happens "down there" sheds possible light on life "out there."

Tolstoy isn't the only one fascinated with life in the deep. It was just such a connection between seaquakes and the origin of life, both planetary and interstellar, that caught the attention of A-list Hollywood director James Cameron. The Academy Award-winning director of Titanic and The Terminator, also has a passion for deep-sea science. And this infatuation has yielded the director's most recent work, the science documentary Aliens of the Deep, which hit IMAX theaters across the country in January. Aliens of the Deep studies the exotic creatures living along the vent sights for clues on how life may have originated on Earth. The film also takes a second journey using astrobiology -- the study of life on other worlds -- to speculate about the possibility of life on Europa, one of the moons orbiting Jupiter.

Through a circuitous series of events, Cameron became aware of Tolstoy's marine seismic work at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. The director called Tolstoy and asked her to sign on for the Aliens voyage, both as technical advisor and on-screen talent.

For Tolstoy, the timing was perfect. Explains Tolstoy, "I'd just received funding by the National Science Foundation to deploy an array of ocean floor seismometers to study undersea quakes. I learned about my funding in June of 2003. Normally, there can be a long lag time between receiving research money and actually getting research equipment into the field. It could have taken at least a year to get that experiment scheduled on a research ship. But Jim's cruise on the research vessel Keldysh allowed me to get instruments in the water by September 2003, so we got a real head start. This is particularly exciting at this site, between the Gulf of California and southern New Zealand, where the indications are that it's heating up and an eruption could happen at any time."

Thanks to the NSF grant, Tolstoy is deploying the ocean bottom seismometers, which will study at great depth one of three mid-ocean ridge sites. The site featured in Aliens, referred to as "9-North," is in an area called the East Pacific Rise, which runs roughly from the Gulf of California to south New Zealand. By placing monitoring instrumentation at these three sites, scientists hope to capture a seafloor eruption that might otherwise go unnoticed except by some 2-meter-long tube worms, mussels or crabs. Capturing the actual process of tectonic plate formation is fundamental: Understanding how plates are formed is essentially getting a sneak-peek into the workings of Earth's basic building blocks.

With 25 research cruises under her belt, Tolstoy is no stranger to the sea. But being chosen to join the crew of Aliens offered an entirely new experience. If you think the movie business is a unique world, imagine shooting a documentary about sea-floor life. It means, being on the ocean floor -- and that means mini-submarines. (Think dank, dark, wee can, under tons of pressure).

Despite her research-cruise veteran status, Tolstoy admits being thrilled at participating in this project, diving to the seafloor in a mini submarine and working with such an exceptional film team. In Aliens, Tolstoy is first seen lowering equipment overboard; later, and about two miles below the surface, we see her in the mini-sub, talking about the seafloor. The sub hovers directly above a black plume of vent-smoke, which, she says, "at its hottest point is about 400 degrees Celsius."

"Cameron is amazingly impressive in his command of the science issues; he's more than capable of holding his own in a scientific conversation and really grasps the details of what's important and why. In some ways, he pushed me to be a better scientist, by asking the hard questions and pushing for the greater meaning behind it all. We're exceptionally lucky to have someone of his obvious filmmaking talents take such an interest in this topic, and really hope that the film will raise public awareness of the importance of the work done by myself and institutes such as Lamont-Doherty."

"Whether you're looking through a microscope, a telescope or the windows of a sub, science is all about discovering the unknown," says Tolstoy. It's a philosophy that seems to evenly parallel her achievements and career at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She adds, "I hope the film gets young people excited about science and exploration, because science is exploration."

It's Friday morning. Tolstoy's still red-eyed from the Aliens L.A. premier. She's tired, but clearly ebullient, already thinking of her next project. Responding to a NASA request, she and some Lamont-Doherty colleagues just submitted a white paper (basically, a "call for opinions") suggesting that if you're going to search for life on Mars, or anywhere in our solar system, one indispensable aspect of the research must involve deploying seismometer equipment to detect where quakes and volcanic activity are occurring.

To learn about activities at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, visit http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/. Learn more about Tolstoy and the film at http://www.disney.go.com/disneypictures/aliensofthedeep.

Published: Feb 03, 2005
Last modified: Feb 03, 2005

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