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Oceanography series makes waves at Linden Ponds

Created date

July 26th, 2010
A crew of renowned chemists recently shared oceanographic discoveries with eager scholars at Linden Ponds in a series of presentations that was also a breakthrough for the community. It certainly was groundbreaking; it was our first attempt under Lifelong Learning to have a bonus course like that which was open to the whole community, says Joan Mahoney, cochair of the Lifelong Learning committee. It was an experiment, and I think a highly successful one. Lifelong Learning courses are typically presented by Linden Ponds residents to program enrollees for $75, which includes two semesters annually. Hot Topics in Oceanography brought a handful of outside experts to Linden Ponds for lectures that were open to the entire community. The series was free for Lifelong Learning members; nonmembers paid $5 a lecture.

Eager students, teachers

The series was the idea of Jean Whelan, who lives at Linden Ponds and is an oceanographer emeritus at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, a nonprofit responsible for ocean research and education. Last fall, she taught a Lifelong Learning course Oceanography and Me and brought in guest lecturer Peter Tyack, a famous marine biologist and son of a former Linden Ponds resident. Whelan was taken by Tyack s positive impressions of his Linden Ponds pupils and their high level of interest in the subject matter. Knowing that Linden Ponds has its own auditorium and that the researchers at Woods Hole don t always have many chances to share their work with the public, she suggested a series of lectures. Whelan expected to fill the series with experts from a variety of fields, but when she went to Woods Hole to ask around, she only got as far as its chemistry hallway, where she still has an office. I wound up filling up the whole schedule just from the chemistry department, she says. They were all very excited about it.

Complex science

From there, the Lifelong Learning committee took the lead on organizing the classes and promoting them within the community. Six Woods Hole experts visited Linden Ponds in April and May for lectures in the performing arts center. Each presentation drew between 70 and 125 attendees. One of the most wellreceived lectures came from Margaret Tivey, Ph.D., senior scientist and director of the Deep Ocean Exploration Institute at Woods Hole. In Burning Chimneys in Freezing Water, Tivey explained hydrothermal vents and in doing so, demonstrated the difference between a regular Styrofoam cup and one that has been exposed to hydrostatic pressure in the depths of the ocean it emerged about an inch tall. William Jenkins, Ph.D., senior scientist in marine chemistry and geochemistry, also generated enthusiasm with his presentation, A Breathtaking Perspective on the Ocean s Role in the Global Environment. Whelan says Jenkins is one of the foremost experts on the complicated subjects of ocean circulation and global warming. I think the residents appreciated that this guy was telling them the real story and not talking down to them, Whelan says. It s a wonderful example of how smart our residents are. The instructors were equally impressed with the caliber of students. Whelan says one researcher gave a lecture at Harvard University shortly after the Linden Ponds presentation and reported back, the people at Linden Ponds asked better questions.

Relevant topics

At the end of the last lecture in the series, Whelan addressed the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, an area in which she had done previous research. She showed a movie from the ocean floor in the Gulf, where she and her colleagues discovered years ago that gas and oil bubble up naturally. In the film, all of the gas that bubbled up from the sea floor into a collection tube solidified, blocking areas of the tube. Whelan explains, This occurred as a result of methane gas, which forms an ice-like solid called methane hydrate or gas hydrate, in the presence of water at the high pressures and low temperatures of the ocean floor. When methane gas and water meet, what appear to be methane bubbles rapidly solidify and can clog any tubes or caps until the area is warmed and the hydrate goes back to being a gas and a liquid. My theory is that BP didn t anticipate the amount of gas that would also be released in the dig, Whelan says. She believes that gas was responsible for the explosion of the well. Since the Deepwater Horizon spill on April 20, Whelan has been involved in consulting engineers who are trying to get funding for related research. She says she may give a special lecture at Linden Ponds on her oil and gas work. In the meantime, the number of people enrolled in the Lifelong Learning program at Linden Ponds has swelled from last year s roster of 120 students to about 200. This fall, another semester of approximately ten courses taught by Linden Ponds residents will commence, and Mahoney says there will definitely be another series featuring outside subject experts, possibly on art history. The horizon is widening for Lifelong Learning, Mahoney says. [This was] the first experiment going outside the standard schedule of internal teachers working with small groups. All of a sudden, we burst forth with a gift to members...we are certainly going to pursue it.