99% Invisible | Podcast Review | September 4, 2015 | By

99% Invisible #179: “Bathysphere”

Roman Mars: the voice that launched a thousand Bathyspheres. 99% Invisible takes a dive (but in a good way).

There aren’t a whole lot of places that write about radio and podcasts. Which is a good thing; It gives us here at Audiologue something to do. But if there were such a place, I feel confident in positing that all of them would write about the golden voice of Roman Mars. In fact, I believe this so strongly that I’ve tried to avoid talking about it. Somehow, it already feels trite, tired, overdone. I might as well write about the white/gold, blue/black dress, or ask if you’ve heard of this cool new show Serial.

But just, damn. Seriously, take a second, hit play on the episode embed above, listen to the “This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.” Now listen to it again. See? Like I said: damn. Remember the first time you heard your voice on tape and thought, “Do I really sound like that? Like an even more terrible Steve Urkel?” We’ve all been there. That is, all of us except Roman Mars. When Roman first heard himself recorded, he’s said, “Screw this degree in plant population genetics, I’m gonna make it big in radio.” 1

Roman Mars has the voice that could launch a thousand podcasts. Or at least a thousand podcast reviews, or thinkpieces. I don’t know know exactly, but there’s a good Helen of Troy/thousand ships comparison in there somewhere. Maybe he would launch a thousand bathyspheres, which is good, because this week, we’re talking about the ocean.

Humans weren’t designed to go into the ocean. We can’t breathe underwater or move quickly enough to hunt fish. So we have to design objects, as Roman and producer Katie Mingle tell us, to feed our need to explore. From Alexander the Great and his glass barrel to diving bells and submarines, humans have long been trying to descend into the depths. But for years, we were stymied by pressure. And what was the point? For many years, people thought that, past a certain depth, life couldn’t exist anyway.

And then, in the 1920s, came the insatiably curious William Beebe. Though an ornithologist by trade, the ocean fascinated Beebe, and he worked tireless to find a way into the depths. Soon, he paired up with engineer Otis Barton to design a new device. One that would take them deeper than any human had gone before. Together, they built the Bathysphere, an impossibly small submersible into which Beebe and Barton would both squeeze for their descents. It had a small window, a spotlight, oxygen tanks, and not much else.

Despite the discomfort, the two made dozens of descents. Roman tells us that “they made it to 3028 feet—six times deeper than anyone had ever been.” (15:52) They published illustrations of what they saw down below in National Geographic which, though generally faithful, were so strange that they were often disbelieved and derided.

Beebe wrote at length in a memoir, Half Mile Down, about the beauty of the water—the infinite, encompassing blues, the strangeness of the fish, the wonder of the lower world. This beauty is evoked well by the soundscape of the episode; beautifully mixed, as always, but particularly so this week. The gurgling of the water, the smooth rush of waves, the crisp voices of the producers and interviewees, and the stunning soundtrack of Lullatone.

Sometimes, I encounter an episode of radio that demands my full attention. NPR calls this experience a “driveway moment,” but I would rather think of them as “miss your metro stop” moments: those episodes, interviews, and discussions that envelop, shock, move, and/or embrace you from beginning to end. That, for me, today, was “Bathysphere.”  Take 30 minutes, close your eyes, and give it a listen.

99% Invisible is a tiny radio show about design, architecture & the 99% invisible activity that shapes our world. Each episode is a sound-rich deep dive into a single topic.” from 99pi.org. This episode was “Bathysphere.” 

  1. This is actually more true than you might imagine; he really did study plant population genetics. ^

About the Author

Eric McDaniel is the founder of Audiologue, where he covers 99% Invisible. Right now, his favorite shows are Mystery Show and Cortex. Find him on Twitter @ericmmcd, or by email at eric@audiologue.xyz.

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