by Colin Campbell
Mother nature is a blabbermouth. Want to know the secret of life? She'll tell--but only if you ask the right question.At the University of California at Santa Barbara, a cluster of researchers are asking new questions--and have found some startling new answers.
Even from twenty miles in the air you can't see all of UC Santa Barbara. Its research feelers probe down to the boiling cracks in the bottom of the Pacific, where exotic life forms spurn sunlight and live off volcanic energy, and extend up into the sky toward the hearts of exploding galaxies. Tentacles of coaxial cable and microwave relay stations connect researchers here with data banks, still other researchers, and students from Vandenberg Air Force Base to Point Mugu. Men and women are digging and delving and rooting around in the universe, poking into the cell and the self, trying to pry out the next significant fact that will lead to the next question and the next answer.
Research is always a gamble. After the spectacular launch-pad explosion of the first Vanguard satellite in 1958, U.S. Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson reminded reporters, "If everything you started was bound to succeed, it wouldn't be research and it wouldn't be development. It would just be straight engineering."
That same year of 1958 saw UCSB admitted into full partnership as a general campus of the University of California, able to confer advanced degrees and required to conduct research, since a true University is not a passive repository of information, but rather an active seeker after new facts. The University requires faculty to be scholar teachers, artist teachers, scientist teachers, and researcher teachers.
If researchers feel defensive about their trade in these days of the Proxmire Golden Fleece awards, it's partly because they enjoy their work so much. By nature they have an uncommon itch of curiosity that demands to be scratched. The hard part is convincing someone to pay the bills-especially when there is no guarantee of success. A chemist might wonder what would happen if Substance X were mixed with Compound Z, and be satisfied if the answer were "nothing." But today the bill-payer--the public--sees the thousands of dollars spent to no obvious effect. The public doesn't understand probability and statistics; explain lottery tickets and the public smiles and buys, but explain pure research and the public snaps its purse shut. The public doesn't care that Thomas Edison tested thousands of materials before finding the filament that made the electric light bulb possible.
"But the day of the Thomas Edisons is over," UCSB Dean of Research Marvin Marcus told me when I visited the campus. "There are big ideas in the wind, big ideas that need to be explored. An individual working in his garage might have been able to make dramatic advances in the days of Edison and Bell. Today, brilliant individual insights are still needed, but in enormously more complicated contexts."
He paused, looked out the window, and took off his heavy-framed glasses, revealing startling black eyebrows. "Not all research pans out, of course," he said, "just as in all creative endeavors. But there's no denying that it improves the quality of life; just look at the impact of the last 20 years of research in micro-electronics and silicon chips. And medical research: untold suffering has been relieved by what we've learned in laboratories. When I was a boy, strep throat was a feared lethal disease. Today it's nothing."
"When I was a boy it was polio," I said.
"Yes. And now our Cancer Research unit is on the track of chemicals that cause cancer cells to 'suicide,' for instance."
"But doesn't all this research interfere with the actual teaching of students?" I asked.
"Definitely not," said Dr. Marcus. "There's nobody more interested in his subject than a researcher. Competence and curiosity are infectious-the teacher transmits his enthusiasm to his students.
"This is exiting work for both student and teacher. They're examining the world for new facts, not vegetating in some cloistered tower. Look at our Dr. Ky Fan--a first-rate leader in mathematical research in the abstruse realm of catastrophe theory--yet renowned for the clarity of his lectures.
Marcus's main job is to locate money. In fiscal year 1979, UCSB took in nearly $1 million in research funds--a 32 percent increase from 1978. As the school's reputation as a national research center has grown, funding has become somewhat easier. But it is still difficult.
Thousands of corporations and institution hand out grants, some for particular projects, some for general investigation. The trick is to connect a promising University project with the right donor. Marcus showed me the computer link to the Palo Alto data bank that lists all current available funds. The computer matches the list against the school's skills and abilities, and when things go well, "The Relationship of Mammalian Cones to Pigment Epithelium" may be funded.
The most significant new chunk of funding is the $5 million dollars from the National Science Foundation that has brought the Institute for Theoretical Physics to UCSB. "We beat out some pretty fancy schools to get it," said Marcus. "It was a fierce competition. We now have the only such institute in the United States-or in the world, for that matter, except maybe for Russia."
At the new Physics Institute I talked to Dr. James Hartle while workmen hammered and sawed and rolled carpet down. "The Institute is an experiment," he said. "It's a physical gathering point for the best theoretical minds. If a researcher has a question about astrophysics, field theory, subatomics, general relativity, or condensed matter physics, he's bound to find an expert with the answer right down the hall."
"What's 'condensed matter physics'?" I asked.
Dr. Hartle smiled and reached out and knocked on his desk. "Condensed matter is simply that kind of matter we're all familiar with. Thus it's the study of matter in strong structures. " Hartle's own specialty is the study of gravity. "This isn't a laboratory science," he said. "Gravity waves are so faint and dilute that they can be studied only in the actions of stellar masses at astronomical distances. Part of my job is to keep up with the literature." He gestured toward the floor-to-ceiling shelves overflowing with magazines like Journal of Astrophysical Research.
Far out in space, quasars and pulsars and fleeing galaxies provide the raw data that gravity researchers mull over. They sift through reports of the astronomers and juggle abstracts of math and theory until a possible fit is found between conjecture and observation. Researchers carry around a different view of the universe than the rest of us. On Dr. Hartle's wall was a poster, a computer photo-map of the one million brightest galaxies. The caption read, "Local debris like the sun, moon, planets, asteroids, and the hundred billion other stars of our galaxy are left off the map."
In a lower floor of the same building, Anthony Korda runs the Physics Learning Center. "Young students have great difficulty with abstractions in physics," he told me. "Here, we give them graphic physical demonstrations of how matter works. " A junior high school group arrived for a visit, and I watched students wrestle with huge gyroscopes, dunk balloons into liquid air (they deflate instantly, then slowly expand as they warm back up), hold balls captive in midair with jets of wind, and spin Van deGraaf generators to hurl baby bolts of lightning from one metal sphere to another.
It's a physics playground and the students love it. "They learn that physics is about how real objects interact," Korda said. "Instead of dry equations, they see for themselves the incredible variety of physical interactions the universe is capable of. They can feel magnetic fields and see three-dimensional holograms that appear to be solid objects-but aren't."
In a darkened corner of the learning center, a movie screen showed the Tacoma Sound Bridge in 1940. It had an unfortunate resonance with the prevailing winds that led to its nickname of "Galloping Gertie." The students watched, rapt, as the bridge undulated and swayed, a concrete and steel demonstration of wave theory, until it exploded from the strain, to send cars and shards tumbling into the sea.
"These new kids are much better acquainted with the basics than they were ten years ago," Korda told me as we watched. "And except maybe for Cal Tech, UCSB is the best school in the state for teaching physics. "
I left the Physics Learning Center and hurried across the campus to attend a graduate research meeting at the Engineering building. Students and bicycles flowed in every direction I but the traffic wasn't bad--the sidewalks are colored red for foot traffic, blue for bicycles. Nobody knows how many bikes there are on campus, but it's more than ten thousand.
Dr. Glen Wade leads the Acoustic Optical Imaging research team that was about to meet. He introduced me to the students, teachers, and visiting researcher Masahide Yoneyama, chief researcher from NipponColumbia, Ltd., here on a one-year leave of absence.
We had to wait for several members of the group--the semester had just changed and a new meeting time had to be discussed. While they talked, I noted the title of a book on the conference table: Optical Imaging of Ultrasonic Fields by Acoustic Bragg Diffraction.
Wade is thin and intense. "Before we start," he said to the group, "here's a new problem to think about--an oil field is having trouble with pumps and compressors snapping their pipes off." It seemed that when all the different machines on one concrete slab get into a rhythm, the slab starts to vibrate and then the pipes snap. The oil company was stumped and had asked Wade's group to think about the problem.
As it happens in research, the group chased off on a tangent for a while. Professor Joe Eisner leaped to the blackboard and drew a diagram; heated discussion broke out. The phone rang and Wade picked it up; the meeting paused for a moment, then flowed on around him.
Dr. Gail Flescher took me aside and talked about the basic tool of Bragg Diffraction research: a tank of water. Pipe sound into the tank and waves will ripple the surface. Objects in the tank changc~ the pattern of the waves, and interpreting the waves can tell a I ot about the objects. Like a post in a pond, in a way: any small ripples in the water will cause concentric circles of ripples to radiate away from the post, and you can deduce the cross-section of the post from the ripples.
He went to the board to draw a diagram to explain "streaming," a garbling of information. The rest of the group was talking about ultrahigh frequency sound, and Yoneyama described a method his company had developed back in Japan, using sound at 300,000 cycles per second.
The group paused while Joe Eisner scratched some figures on the back of an envelope. Professor Wade was still on the phone, apparently talking to a grad student concerned about the publication of his thesis. Joe Eisner said, "At 300,000, then, your acoustic image would be accurate to within one millimeter." This caused a stir and furious whacking of chalk against the blackboard.
Eventually Professor Wade said "Look, I'm on your side. It's the referees you have to convince, not me," and hung up the phone. He looked at his watch and said, "How would we present this to the National Science Foundation? Let's table that for now and work on the Focal Plane Tomography proposal, all right?"
Research scientists can dream up projects day and night, but it takes money to change them from dreams to reality. Even tanks of water cost cold hard cash. Joe Eisner dug out a sheaf of papers, the rough draft of their proposal to the NSF, and the group discussed details of their plan.
Before X-rays were invented, doctors used stethoscopes to listen for broken bones; they held a tuning fork against the underside of a suspected broken arm, and if the tone was clear and distinct, there was no break. If the tone was muffled and dim, it was likely the bone was broken.
The diagnosis was based on the fact that bones and soft tissues conduct sound at different rates. X-rays were quicker and easier, and the tuning fork method died out. Today, the big hospitals have new X-ray machines that can see cross-sections of the body, using rotating image plates and computer processing. The machines are saving a lot of lives, but all those X-rays add to the radiation hazard. And X-rays have trouble telling one soft tissue from another without radio-opaques: bismuth "milkshakes," injected radio-iodine, or other unpleasant procedures. Focal Plane Tomography would give doctors computer-processed pictures from sound waves, which can distinguish a muscle from a tendon or a liver from a kidney without putting opaque materials into the body. Eisner explained how acoustic imaging could give us a new weapon in the war against disease, without the radiation hazard of X-rays.
The group discussed their proposal. Nobody knows if Focal Plane Tomography will really work, but these researchers are determined to find out. Just before the meeting broke up, Gail Flescher said, "Let's look into the matter. " That seemed to typify the attitude of researchers.
Even after a proposal is finished and accepted, the path to a completed research project is slippery. It took Dr. Dean Mann and Dr. Alan Wyner 18 months, for example, to shepherd their earthquake research proposal through the maze of approval stages at the National Science Foundation. The proposal was sent back several times when NSF reviewers found flaws, or determined that certain areas duplicated work already under way elsewhere.
Mann and Wyner told me the critics were helpful, enabling them to sharpen the focus of their studies on earthquake preparedness. Earthquakes are a blind spot in foresight. Most Californians shrug and say, "Well, sure, there's going to be a big quake here sooner or later, but there's not a damned thing we can do to stop it," and go about their business as if earthquakes didn't exist.
It's a rational decision for an individual; any given location has a low probability of being hit. But a city isn't an individual; it can't ignore the large social risk. Mann and Wynar wondered how prepared each city and county was, and discovered that nobody knew. So ihey decided to investigate.
When the grant was finally approved, they started interviewing. For two years they called and visited public officials, insurance brokers, bankers, seismologists, labor leaders, home owners, women voters, neighborbDod organizations, schools, fire and police departments,
The results? They found that emergency planning seems to be governed by the old Proverb: once bitten, twice cautious. Cities with recent memory of earthquake damage often had plans and equipment ready for the worst possible situation, while many towns that have been spared in recent years ignored the risks in blissful ignorance. In one town, for instance, not one official knew how to turn off the natural gas supply if an earthquake should shatter the pipelines. And most of the destruction in the 1906 San Francisco quake was caused by gas fires afterwards...
In the face of widespread indifference, Mann and Wynar have helped determine the proper procedures each town should have in readiness to stave off quake damage. But there is no easy solution to earthquake preparation; politicians who stump for quake plans get short shrift from voters, especially when those voters' homes may be condemned in the name of quake standards. But somebody has to think about these things, and UCSB is where they do it today.
After I talked to Mann and Wynar, I descended the stairs of Ellison Hall and watched workers repair the walls damaged during the August 1978 quake. Luckily, school was not in session during the quake, and there were no injuries. But thousands of dollars worth of equipment was damaged, and more than a quarter million volumes fell from the shelves of the University library. The University wasn't ready.
When earthquake struck the Santa Barbara Channel in 1979, however, the school was ready. Within ten hours of the quake, the Marine Sciences Institute had underwater seismometers in place at the epicenter, in time to catch details of the aftershocks.
The Marine Science Institute is at UCSB because of the unique Santa Barbara Basin: a geological and ecological wonder where a rich profusion of sea life flourishes in the sediments protected by the islands. It's a microcosm of the entire ocean.
Each day, researchers around the campus make requests for specific sea animals for experiments, and Institute divers set out in inflatable pontoon boats to fill the orders. The fish are brought back alive and kept at the best saltwater facilities on the West Coast.
Researcher Dave Coon showed me around. We walked among huge storage tanks and down the stairs to the MSI holding area: rough sheds filled with a maze of pipes, pumps, and machinery designed to keep highly corrosive sea water flowing for hundreds of animals.
Ping-Pong tables supported wide, eight-inch-high flat tanks. Tanks were stacked like milk crates, tanks were tiered and arrayed like shelves and drawers, all topped by screens or panels or openwork metal. Fresh live sea water flowed through them all. Inside, crabs scuttled, abalone pulsed, kelp floated, shrimp chased freshly added food, lobster peeked from hiding.
"We don't filter seawater," Dave Coon told me. "It has to be live, so the filtering animals can get nourishment from it. Most of the smaller animals here will end up as food for larger ones in long-running experiments around the campus."
We rounded a corner into the greenhouse where marine plants that thrive in turbulent waters are kept healthy with jet sprays. Dave Coon stuck his hand in and fingered the long kelp strands. "This kind dies in still water," he told me. I reached in and the kelp felt like long flexible bottle brushes.
At the far end of the greenhouse sat a concrete tank like a wishing well ten feet across. I looked down into it and two moray eels--five feet long and eight inches thick--looked up and opened their mouths. They had many sharp pointy teeth and seemed to be saying, "Wouldn't it be fun if you put your fingers in this tank?"
Dave Coon went to the far side of the tank and pulled out a sea hare, a floppy glob of reddish brown that lay quiet in his hand. He pointed into the tank toward some large abalone. "See that red crust on the rocks? That's corralline algae. Dan Morse's group has discovered that coralline is the secret to abalone cultivation. "
For years people have tried to seed abalone in new areas along the coast, but to no avail. When free-swimming abalone larvae were seeded in new waters, the tiny planktonic forms floated and drifted, and eventually ended up on some crab's dinner plate. They never matured into the familiar shelled delicacy that otters and humans love.
Even getting abalone larvae to work with was a problem. Dr. Daniel Morse led the research group that identified the hormones controlling abalone reproduction. The hormones turned out to be of the same family as those that control human reproduction: the prostaglandins.
From his studies of reproductive chemistry, Morse guessed that adding an extra molecule of oxygen would make adult abalone produce prostaglandins. He choose hydrogen peroxide, which chemically is just water with an extra, highly active oxygen atom loosely attached. When he added the peroxide to the water, it stimulated the abalone to produce sperm and eggs.
Now it was possible to fertilize millions of eggs at a time, when the researcher wanted them. But the larvae still refused to settle to the bottom, grow a shell, and turn into responsible adults.
The clue was in the red, the corralline," Dr. Morse told me. "Out in the ocean, you find abalone only around corralline algae. It have been coincidence, and we had lots of other factors to check out.
"But it turned out that corralline gives off the hormone gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). When a larva encounters GABA, it sinkss to the bottom and loses its swimming cilia. In forty hours, a heart forms and begins to beat and the shell begins to grow. The GABA is a neurotransmitter, chemically similar to the neurotransmitters that pass signals from cell to cell in our own brains. Neurotransmitters bridge the synapses, and control the early development of the embryo.
"GABA actually turns on the genes in the cells. It goes right to the DNA, finds the genes control heart-building and shell-building, says 'Get to work."
"So now it's the day of the abalone farmer?" I said.
"Sure, there's great commercial potential in this," said Dr. Morse. "But now you're looking for the home-run ball. Our breakthroughs have been at a basic level, not at the level of commercial production. But in testing the methods on other species, we've artificially spawned oysters and scallops and mussels and even a tropical Giant Clam."
Research in biology holds forth many more dreams. Every human cell carries a complete blueprint of the whole body. Someday, when chemicals like GABA are better understood, we may learn how to instruct our own cells to build a new arm or heart or set of teeth...
Numerous other projects are underway at the Marine Science Institute. Poster-size color photos line the walls: close-ups of squid, jellyfish, and marine marvels of all kinds, including one tiny spherical crustacean that is a clear sac of intricate organs floating in a universe of black. It looked like the last scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
A map on the conference room wall shows the floors of the oceans: the world as though someone had pulled the plug and let all the water out. We live in a cracked and split world.
At the bottom of one of the cracks, James Childress found crabs living at the edge of a geothermal vent: an underwater volcano where water boils up, hotter than steam, but kept liquid by the immense pressure. A bizarre food chain begins here, with tiny life forms that convert heat energy into biological energy, similar to the way plants turn solar energy into food. At the top of the chain are Gnathopausia Ingens crabs, close relatives of normal crabs, but adapted to the low oxygen levels more than a mile below the surface and to the hundred thousand cubic inches of water pressing on each square inch of their bodies.
Childress brought back five of these crabs and kept them alive in a special high-pressure tank. He found that they have a metabolic rate far below that of their shoreline cousins; they could survive on a much lower energy intake.
Another Institute researcher, Bruce Robison, made a discovery by accident. One night a sea he pulled up the cables of an ocean experiment, and when the cage surfaced he saw an octopus clinging to it. He saw it only because it was glowing in the dark.
Nobody before or since ever found a bioluminescent octopus, and Robison is looking for funds to go out and fish up another one.
"It's one of the things that draws people into sesearch," said Dr.Henry Offen, Director of the Institute. "You never know what's going to happen--at any moment, you might just discover something that's, really important and exciting."
There was a lot more to see at MSI, but there are dozens more research projects in other areas. UCSB is a big school. I walked from the Marine Sciences buildings, past the lagoon and the ocean. There was so much left to discover...