Astounding 1983 Bioluminescence Research Photos


Making science look cool, Staff Research Associate Charlie Arneson uses a Bunsen burner to inoculate and then transfer cultures of Photobacterium NZ11-D. © Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS

As a science blogger I'm always scanning through photosets of scientists at work in the lab. You know the sort of photo: white coats, Petri dishes, microscopes... It's rarely captivating stuff. So when I ran across these amazing images by visionary photographer Roger Ressmeyer I had to share them.

I absolutely love the colors here as they bleed the sort of dark, retro ambiance that instantly makes me think of the 1986 mad science gore-fest "From Beyond." And while the above image resonates with an aura of occult ritual, the one below ups the ante with that Hewlett Packard 9845B and its glorious monochrome monitor. You just want to bask in its glory.

But what's the story, right?

These shots capture Scripp's Bioluminescent Research Project funded by the Office of Naval Research. The Navy has always been concerned with a submarine's propensity to stir up bioluminescent organisms, leaving a glowing wake behind it. This luminous trail then enabled enemy planes with blue-green photomultiplying optical sensors to locate exactly where subs were positioned.

So the Navy wanted to know how to eliminate that glow through the use of chemicals. Or, failing that, they hoped to learn how to avoid the snitch organisms responsible.

Marine microbiologist Dr. Kenneth Nealson inserts a test tube containing cultures of the glowing dinoflagellate Gonyaulax polyedra into a photomultiplier tube light sensor, which works along with five other photo sensors to produce the 3-D computer plot shown at right
© Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS

The submarine/bioluminesence issue goes back a while. In fact, bioluminescence that gave away the position of the last German U-boat sunk during World War I in 1918. And guess what? The Navy's still interested. As recently as 2008, they requested research proposals for bioluminesence monitoring systems aimed at identifying ad tracking vessels.


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.