Inside Alvin: Scientists as Makers

By Maggie Koerth-Baker at 1:16 pm Wed, Sep 28, 2011

There are things you can't buy at Radioshack. There is not always an App for that. Sometimes, the only way to make something work is to build it yourself.

Nobody knows that better than scientists.

From physicists tracking a particle, to taxonomists identifying a new species of wasp, to chemists creating a useful molecule—nearly every discovery you read about in the paper began with the researchers creating the tools they needed to test their own hypotheses. In the lab, DIY isn't just a hobby. It's part of the job.

And Alvin, a research submersible owned by the U.S. Navy and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, is one of the most successful scientist DIY projects ever. Launched in 1964, Alvin was part of a trend. At the time, everybody wanted their own deep-sea-worthy mini-submarine. But, almost 50 years later, Alvin is one of the few still in use. The little research vessel that could, Alvin was made—and is regularly re-made—by the very people who use it.

Last month, I was in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and got a chance to tour the facilities where Alvin is currently undergoing a significant overhaul, and where WHOI researchers design and build all the tools they use on Alvin and on ships like the Oceanus.

My guide was Hartley Hoskins, a geophysicist and communications engineer who has worked for WHOI since 1958. At an age when most people are slowing down or retiring all together, Hoskins remains almost preternaturally passionate about WHOI and the work that's done there. At one point during the tour, he got so excited about the technology he was explaining that he literally bounced on his toes.

Of all the things Hoskins loves, it's the DIY culture of science that seems to please him most.

"It's sort of implicit in the nature of the business," he says. "When you look at NASA projects like the deep space probe, you had to get time synchronous with four points on the Earth's surface to track the thing. You can't buy commercial circuits to do that. That probe works because they use commercial circuits that have been specially adapted by scientists."

To find the place where that same kind of magic happens at WHOI, you have to enter a nondescript, 1970s office building, and walk out its back door, onto a wide pier where a couple of huge metal sheds are surrounded by makeshift outbuildings, stacks of finished tools and crates, and the flotsam of several decades' worth of welders' whimsy.

This is where good ideas become real life, Hoskins says. Where specialized tools are built and where researchers learn how to milk every watt out of the batteries needed to run those tools.

"The policy here is, if you operate it, you build it," he says.



That's Hartley Hoskins in the photo above, standing next to what looks like a white shipping container. But it's really a lot more than that. On the pier, I saw 10 or 15 of these containers and each one, Hoskins told me, was a portable laboratory, designed to be loaded onto a research ship.

This is actually a really important part of the WHOI Maker culture. When you have lots of people building lots of different tools, you quickly realize the importance of making sure those tools can be re-used for multiple purposes. At WHOI, this means there's a lot of standardization built into ships like the Oceanus and Alvin, so those expensive tools can be easily re-configured for a wide variety of research. There's only so much room on a boat, so you can't afford to build in a permanent photography lab that won't be used most of the time. Instead, you build a photography lab in a shipping container, and bring it on board when you need it. In fact, Hoskins likens the Oceanus to a Lego kit. What it does and who it serves can be adapted to just about any research project.

You can see the effects those values on Alvin, as well. Shortly after the sub was launched, Hoskins told me, a bosun named Brody figured out that the researchers who used Alvin needed a better system of organizing their tools.

Bosuns (or boatswains) are the people who manage schedules, work assignments, and the organization of supplies on board a boat. Bosun Brody's skills helped make Alvin a better tool that more scientists could easily use for a wider variety of research.

"Bosuns are really special people," Hartley says. "In one sense, they're like old maids, with a place for everything and everything in its place. Brody was the one who really grabbed the bull by the horns, and realized that to work with Alvin, you needed a little work table."

During one dive in Alvin, the operators might be performing several different experiments, using multiple tools built by different scientists. They have to be able to maneuver everything using robotic arms. And they have to be able to take different kinds of samples and safe places to store them. Pocketing a rock might be no problem, but a softer sort of geologic sample could disintegrate before you hit the surface, if it wasn't properly protected.

Brody designed an interchangeable system of baskets that bolted to Alvin's exterior and allowed scientists to bring along a custom organization system on every trip—sort of like a deep-sea California Closets.

When the people who use a tool are also the ones who design and build it, you get another benefit: The ability to keep the tool up-to-date. When I visited WHOI, Alvin was completely dismantled for a major overhaul. The sub gets this treatment every three or four years, Hoskins said. But this particular overhaul was a bit different.

That's because Alvin's sphere, the part of the ship that actually carries the crew, is being completely replaced, for the second time in the sub's history. The sphere in the photo above will go to the Smithsonian. In it's place, Alvin will carry a sphere capable of taking human beings to a depth of 20,000 feet below the surface of the ocean. The first Alvin sphere, in contrast, could only hit 8,500 feet.

The new sphere will also be a little larger, and more buoyant. That's a big deal. For one thing, it means Alvin will be able to carry more heavy equipment. For another, it makes Alvin safer. The photos below show Alvin's chassis, stripped bare. The sphere rests in the big circular brace at the front of the sub. But it's not bound to that brace. The only thing connecting the sphere to the rest of the sub is a series of explosive bolts. In an extreme emergency, the bolts could be blown and the buoyant sphere would rise to the surface on its own.

Published 1:16 pm Wed, Sep 28, 2011

About the Author

Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. From August 2014-May 2015, she will be a Nieman-Berkman Fellow at Harvard University. You can follow Maggie's adventures in the Ivory Tower by subscribing to The Fellowship of Three Things newsletter.

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16 Responses to “Inside Alvin: Scientists as Makers”

  1. Adam Cahan says:

    awesome

  2. Stefan Jones says:

    I remember reading about and being fascinated by Alvin when I was a grammer-school kid. It was the kind of thing that appeared in My Weekly Reader.

  3. bkad says:

    I used to work in experimental science, and it is very much DIY. Partly because we were doing things that had never been done before, and partly because of the economics. Grad student labor is much cheaper than equipment, and grad students are supposed to be provided with educational opportunities, so having them design, wire, machine, and build their own stuff accomplishes both goals at once.

    In the non-academic world world, there isn’t as much DIY, because the economics flip. Including overhead (which includes everything from heating the building to paying the boss’ secretary) engineers can cost US$ 150 per hour. It is easy to spend more money just talking about whether to buy something  than the purchase itself. Still, new product development is like profession DIY.

  4. bkad says:

    with overhead, engineers can cost US$ 150 per hour.

    Actually can cost much more; $150 is just a reasonable billing rate for an average mix of engineers on an outside contracts, with overhead. DIY is rarely cheaper in that kind of environment.

  5. website sales says:

    Now Thats a throw back.  I remember dreaming about how it would be to operate this thing when i was a kid.

  6. Mister44 says:

    Alvin Shmalvin – Bathyscaphe Trieste FTW!!

  7. Art says:

    Awesome, indeed! 
    Thanks,  Maggie,  for the great post :)

  8. Jed Goldstone says:

    I should note that at WHOI the overhead rate is such that it does cost easily $100-$150 an hour for an engineer. The DIY part comes into play because there just isn’t anyone commercially able to build an Alvin. Forging the titanium pressure sphere involved calling people out of retirement who knew how to do it. And, all of the systems have to be repairable *on the ocean floor* by the pilot – no calling tech support or getting a replacement part shipped down.  DIY is the only way to do it.

  9. gordonjcp says:

    I love Poseidon chilling out at the barbecue.  I think that’s my favourite photo out of the set ;-)

  10. Lobster says:

    I hear that milk is pretty good inside Alvin.

  11. drugdoc says:

    personally, I don’t do DIY’s upon which my survival depend.
    but hey, you do what you want to…..

    • Ito Kagehisa says:

      I’m the other way ’round; it aggravates me to have my survival depend on stuff that wasn’t built by someone at least as capable as me, and generally I cannot afford stuff built by people more capable than me.

      But as you say, it’s a personal thing really…

  12. next time I make it on a boat I am going to tell the owner or captain that they might need a bosun to optimize their experience. just to see the facial expression.. i might have to hold this one for a year or two and pull it out. bosun.. good for scrabble too

  13. boxyroom_22 says:

    Innovation should never cease to exist. We should not be complacent, all things can be made greater, just look at Alvin after so many years there are still room for improvement.

  14. Mr. Protocol says:

    Back in the days when I wrote the column “Ask Mr. Protocol”, I got to sit inside the Alvin and write a column.  My host was one of the Alvin’s pilots at the time, Tom Tengdin.  He related some of the nitty-gritty.  One thing that stuck with me is that very few things go through the Alvin’s hull.  Those special connections are made via cone-shaped “penetrators”, which have the narrow end pointed inward, so that sea water pressure tends to hold them in place.  The air conditioning is primitive, so the inside of the hull “sweats” during a dive, especially around the penetrators.  One part of the pilot’s job is to swipe the “sweat” with a fingertip and taste it, to see if it’s salty.  If it is, they might have a problem.

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