Thursday, July 29, 2010

Cool People Profile: Dr. Richard Pyle

Name: Dr. Richard Pyle 
Age: 47
Nationality: USA
Profession: Ichthyologist
Employer: Bernice P. Bishop Museum (Honolulu, HI)
Quote: "I'm just a big fish nerd"

Social Networking
1. LinkedIn
2. Old-fashioned Friends, BBQs, and Conferences

1. Bernice P. Bishop Museum
2. Association for Marine Exploration

Dr. Richard Pyle is an ichthyologist (a scientist who studies fish) but he goes about it in a very distinct and unusual way. He was mentored by Dr. John Randall, the greatest living ichthyologist alive (with so many new species discoveries that you have to go back to the 1800s to find someone with more), at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

What makes him a pioneer in his field is that he focuses his collection and research efforts on the 50 - 200 meter deep mesophotic reef (see last week’s Science Corner), which he coins the “twilight zone” because below about 40 meters, light is significantly reduced but not completely absent. In that environment, there is still enough light for photosynthesis to occur and some hardy plants and reef-building corals do grow at the depths he explores.

He started exploring those depths when still a teenager living in the Marshall Islands using traditional air-filled SCUBA diving equipment. Below about 40m a diver will start experiencing nitrogen narcosis, summarized by the “Martini Law.” Basically, for every 50 feet you dive it is like drinking one martini.

When he was 19 years old he “got bent” on such a dive and was paralyzed from the neck down for nearly 6 weeks and couldn’t walk properly for more than 6 months. The experience, rather than detracting him, caused him to pursue studies in diving physics and gas law thermodynamics so that he could better understand the physiological effects that diving at such great depths has on a person. Now, he uses a specially-designed rebreather device to recycle the oxygen he breathes while removing the carbon dioxide. Combined with other technicalities like replacing portions of the nitrogen in his breathing mixture with inert gases like helium (to lessen the effects of nitrogen narcosis and lower the risk of “the bends”), Dr. Pyle now regularly dives between 60 - 160 meters depth throughout the Pacific Ocean. At such depths, he and his team discover up to 1 new species to science for every 7 minutes spent below 50m.

His exploits have been shown in the IMAX film Coral Reef Adventure, the BBC series Pacific Abyss, and many other features. He is the author of numerous scientific, technical, and popular magazine articles and also contributes regularly to the Encyclopedia of Life. In 2005 he won the NOGI Award, which is the highest honor in diving. In 2009 he spoke at the TED conference, with his talk below (complete with pictures and videos from the “twilight zone”). You can read see his TED interview.

For his continuing passion for trailblazing exploratory research coupled with an innate desire to share his “fish nerd” passions with a wider audience, and doing things that most didn’t know were possible, Dr. Richard Pyle is most definitely a Cool Person.

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