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Arts and crafts day on the Knorr

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Yesterday was officially arts and crafts day on the R/V Knorr. We had a very specific project: decorate styrofoam cups.

If you’re wondering why, just hold on a minute. First, some pictures of our beautiful cups:

Cups and their makers.

Ok, so the reason we each decorated a couple of cups has to do with pressure in the ocean. As you descend deeper and deeper in the ocean, it gets darker, colder, and denser. The deeper you go, the more pressure crushes in on you. Organisms that live deep in the ocean have special adaptations to survive such pressures. Submarines are built with reinforced sides to stay intact. Styrofoam cups, on the other hand, don’t do so well.

We tied the decorated cups to the CTD, plopped it in the water, and sent it down. All the way down to 2500 meters, which is about a mile and a half below the surface. A lot of times scientists send the cups deeper, but that’s about as deep as we can go at our present location. As the CTD sinks downwards, the cups get crushed, and when they come up, they look like this:

Cool, right? Here’s a before and after shot:

One atmosphere is about 14.6 pounds per square inch of pressure. Every time you go down 10 meters, you add one atmosphere. So at 2500 meters you’ve got 3650 pounds per square inch pushing on these cups from all sides. You’d squish too.

Apparently this is somewhat of a tradition on oceanographic cruises. One guy on board, Peter Lee, says he has about 20 shrunken cups. Anton, who works on the Knorr, says he has about “half a million.” He used to give them away as Christmas presents.

In the old days of sailing, they used to display shrunken heads. We’ve got to settle for shrunken styrofoam cups. At least Customs won’t take these away from me.

During this trip, I’ll be answering your questions about the science, this boat, and life onboard. Want to know how we search for plankton, why we’re here, or what the food is like? Just ask me! And if you’re wondering how I got here, check out the groups that made this adventure possible: Mind Open Media and COSEE NOW.

Previously in this series:

All Aboard: how you can be a part of our research blog
You wanted to know: what are these phytoplankton?
You wanted to know: what am I bringing to sea?
Greetings from Ponta Delgada! We set sail tomorrow.
Steaming North: how the scientists are trying to find plankton
The superstar sensor: what is a CTD?
Status Update: Day 3 at the Cyclonic Eddy
You wanted to know: what is this virus that infects the phytoplankton (Part One)
You wanted to know: what is this virus that infects the phytoplankton (Part Two)
Plankton hunting: Part art, Part science
You wanted to know: what’s the food like on board?
Wildlife watch!
Jumborizing: a brief history of the R/V Knorr
On the importance of names. Or, “are we at the hump or the hole?”


Rose Eveleth About the Author: Rose Eveleth is a producer, designer, writer and animator based in Brooklyn. She's got a degree in ecology from U.C. San Diego, and a masters in journalism from NYU. Now, she makes sciencey stuff for places like The New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider and OnEarth. Follow on Twitter @roseveleth.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. DNLee 1:54 pm 06/29/2012

    I AM TOTALLY stilling your ideas for my upcoming expedition blog posts! The google docs, thing. Just so that you know.

    On the art: IT.IS.AWESOME! You all are very very talented. They are just as beautiful crushed as they are intact.
    Thanks do sharing.

    Link to this
  2. 2. RoseEveleth 10:51 am 06/30/2012

    @DNLee, the form has worked out *really* well. We’ve got 68 questions so far, and they’re really good! I was pleasantly surprised at how into it people have gotten. Hooray reader participation!

    Link to this

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