Science Talk

Catch Me If You Ketchikan: Scientific American Alaska Cruise, Part 1

Scientific American Bright Horizons Cruise 22 arrives in Ketchikan, Alaska.

Hi, everybody.  Steve Mirsky here for the Scientific American podcast Science Talk.  A little different format from our usual.  Low production values, just recording this and sending it out.  My position here on Tuesday, August 26, 2014 at 7:56 AM my time is 55 degrees 20 minutes and 30 seconds of latitude north, 131 degrees 38 minutes and 65 seconds of longitude west.  And if you want to figure out where I am on your own you can pause the audio right now.  Or I'll just tell you. 

I just pulled into Ketchikan, Alaska.  Ketchikan, Alaska on the Holland America ship, the ms Amsterdam.  And I'm traveling with the Scientific America Bright Horizons cruise – Scientific American; I should know that, I work there – Scientific American Bright Horizons cruise number 22.  We pulled out of Seattle on Sunday night and we've been at sea since then.  I am apparently still at sea.  But we have pulled into Ketchikan just a few minutes ago this morning.  So that time I gave you, 7:57 now ship's time, Alaska time zone time, I believe, so that would make it about 11:57 Eastern Time, back in New York. 

And I'll tell you about Ketchikan.  I'm actually going to go out – I'm in the cabin right now.  I'm going to go out on the veranda so you can hear a little bit of the sounds of Ketchikan.  It's a beautiful morning, warmer than I was led to believe it might be this time of year.  We have sun breaking through.  There's a lot of clouds, but some sun breaking through.  Some very dark clouds that are shrouding the mountains that look like they're close enough where you can reach out and touch them.  There's a little downtown area of a lot of shops, no doubt to cater to the cruise passengers who get off and might be looking for some tchotchkes to bring home.  And the Ketchikan Mining Company building is prominent on the rather low, but charming skyline. 

And just beyond this little downtown area is a lot of trees, a lot of green trees and some mountains that just erupt.  The tallest one still has dark clouds on top and some lighter clouds actually in the middle, look like they're only a few hundred feet off the ground.  And you can hear some of the action going on out at the pier.  I see some buses pulling up. 

I'll tell you a little bit about the science on the ship.  I was going to tell you for the first 48 hours of the cruise, you've heard about the legendary buffets on cruise ships.  Well, for the first 48 hours we're not allowed to reach in and get that food on our own.  Because of the threat of norovirus they're being very, very careful about any possible contamination.  So for the first 48 hours here you have to ask the very well-trained and highly hygienic staff to hand you whatever you feel like gorging on.  But by tonight I think we'll be able to – they'll be confident enough that we haven't brought anything onboard that's spreading, that we'll be able to take just whatever we care to for our meals.

There's a fishing vessel pulling in just on the other side of this pier from us, the Dorothea.  And I'll tell you a little bit about the Scientific American cruises in general assemble a faculty for each cruise.  Sometimes the faculty's all talking on the same subject; I think we have a little bit of a variation of subject matter.  I'll just tell you about some of the people who spoke yesterday.  On the days when you're out at sea you can go to cruises – you can go to lectures all day, and on the days when you're in port you go off onto the land and you either just wander around on your own or you can do some of the excursions that are available.

So yesterday we heard from Pete Smith, Professor Emeritus of Planetary Sciences at the University of Arizona.  He spent four decades participating in many space missions to various planets in the solar system.  This is from our program guide for Bright Horizons number 22.  You can get more information there at  And combining a background in optical sciences with a deep interest in geology and planetary sciences, Dr. Smith has contributed to cameras that have flown to Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Titan. 

And we also heard from David Stevenson, Professor of Planetary Science, California Institute of Technology.  He's an expert on the origin, evolution, and structure of planets.  He's a New Zealander, a Kiwi, as he called it, who came to the U.S. as a grad student, got a PhD in theoretical physics at Cornell, where he worked on the interior of Jupiter.  And we also heard – Stevenson, by the way, being a New Zealander, he did decide to stay in the U.S., but he said during his talk that those of us in the northern hemisphere don't know what we're missing, the southern sky is a lot more interesting. 

We also heard from Dr. James Gillies.  He's head of communications at CERN.  And he began his career, his thesis covered the internal structure of the proton, and so he was a theoretical physicist, he was a particle physicist, and he got his doctorate at the University of Oxford and now he's in charge of disseminating information about CERN.  And he gave a basic primer on particle physics and talking about the Large Hadron Collider and the events leading up to the discovery of the Higgs-Boson, or the confirmation that it existed. 

And as I said, we'll get more talks from them and other people as the two weeks of this cruise continue.  We're going all the way up into Anchorage and making a bunch of ports of call, which I'll tell you about when I have a chance.  We don’t have an Internet connection on the ship, but now that we're in town we do have some 4G availability, and that's what's enabling me to send this over to our CMS and have it disseminated. 

And we're going to leave the ship later in the day and hopefully see some bears catching salmon mid-air; they're allegedly pretty close to here.  And it's a beautiful day, some sun.  I've never been to Alaska before; it looks a lot like what I figured it would look like so far this time of year.  There's not any snow visible, and that's fine with me. 

So thanks for listening and I will check in with this travelogue style Science Talk series whenever I can, or whenever I Ketchikan.  Sorry about that.  And we'll see you again soon, or hear you again soon, or you'll hear me again soon, I hope.  Thanks for listening. 

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