How Far Can Curiosity Take You?

Sep 12, 2014
Originally published on June 12, 2015 9:01 am

Part 6 of the TED Radio Hour episode From Curiosity To Discovery.

About James Cameron's TED Talk

As a kid, director James Cameron was fascinated with exploring the world around him — everything from pond water to bugs. Those childhood obsessions led him some of the deepest places underwater.

About James Cameron

James Cameron has written and directed some of the biggest blockbuster movies of the last 20 years, including The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Titanic and Avatar. His films are known for pushing the limits of special effects, and his fascination with technical developments led him to co-create the 3-D Fusion Camera System. He has also contributed to new techniques in underwater filming and remote vehicle technology. He has received three Academy Awards, two honorary doctorates and sits on the NASA Advisory Council.

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BILL PAXTON: (As Brock Lovett) Snoop Dogg is on the move. We're headed down the stairwell.


Earlier in the show, we heard from James Cameron who gave a TED Talk all about curiosity, and he explained how in the opening scenes of his film "Titanic," he used small robots to explore the ship's wreckage.


PAXTON: (As Brock Lovett) We're good. We're good. Just chill, boss.

RAZ: Those robots were hunting for treasure, but for James Cameron, the footage he was shooting was the real treasure. He filmed it himself, two-and-a-half miles below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean.


JAMES CAMERON: And, you know, it took a lot of preparation. We had to build cameras and lights and all kinds of things. But it struck me how much this dive - these deep-dives - was like a space mission, you know, where it was highly technical, and it required enormous planning. And you get in this capsule. You go down to this dark, hostile environment where there's no hope of rescue if you can get back by yourself. And, you know, I thought, wow, I'm, like, living in a science-fiction movie. This is really cool. And so I really got bitten by the bug of deep ocean exploration. Of course the curiosity, the science component of it - it was everything. It was adventure. It was curiosity. It was imagination, and it was an experience that Hollywood couldn't give me 'cause, you know, I can imagine a creature. And we can create a visual effect for it, but I couldn't imagine what I was seeing out that window. As we did some our subsequent expeditions, I was seeing creatures at hydrothermal vents and sometimes things that I have never seen before, sometimes things that no one had seen before that actually were not described by science at the time that we saw them and imaged them. So I was completely smitten by this and had to do more. And so I actually made a kind of curious decision. After the success of "Titanic," I said, OK, you know, I'm going to park my day job as a Hollywood movie-maker, and I'm going to go be a full-time explorer for a while.

RAZ: A while has now been almost two decades. And during that time, James Cameron has made more than a dozen deep-sea dives, and he's produced seven documentaries about some of the deepest underwater spots in the world. He recently released an eighth which was shot during his deepest dive ever.


CAMERON: Surface, surface, Deepsea Challenger.

RAZ: In 2012, James and a team of scientists launched a custom-designed craft to the bottom of the Marianas Trench.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Deepsea Challenger, copy. Understood.

RAZ: And in that trench in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is the deepest spot in all the world's oceans. It's called Challenger Deep. And in homage to that spot, James Cameron named his underwater craft...


CAMERON: Surface, Deepsea Challenger.

RAZ: The Deepsea Challenger.

CAMERON: I remember on that dive, I got through my entire checklist like an astronaut, and I was doing all my check-ins and my navigation and all that. I got down to 27,000 feet, and I realized that I had just passed the threshold. It was deeper than the deepest prior dive I had on the expedition, which was 5 miles deep, which we did in the New Britain Trench a couple weeks earlier. I was deeper than the other deepest-diving man-submersible on the planet could go. I was in a terrain - I was in a territory where there was no potential hope of rescue from any other existing technology. So for the first time, I was thinking about, that's a lot of water over my head.

RAZ: Yeah, I mean, I think at a certain point in the film, you say that if you put Mount Everest at the bottom of the ocean and then stack four Empire State buildings on top of it, you still wouldn't break the surface of the ocean.

CAMERON: Yeah, which gives you a sense of how deep it is. Another way to visualize is, next time you're in a commercial airliner at cruise altitude of 36,000 feet, look down, and that's how far the bottom of the ocean would be under you if you were in a ship at Challenger Deep.

RAZ: Wow.

CAMERON: Yeah, exactly. I mean, you know, it's - you're a tiny speck.


CAMERON: Surface, this is Deep-Sea Challenger. I am on the bottom. Depth of 45,756 feet and...

And of course I blew it. You know, I mean, I didn't have anything brilliant to say. I hadn't thought - so what I did is I called in, I said I'm on the bottom, I called in the depth.


CAMERON: ...And life-support's good. Everything looks good.



CAMERON: And I kind of muttered to myself, well...


CAMERON: Whatever I thought I was going to say at that moment wasn't going to be that.

RAZ: (Laughing) How different was what you expected to see at the bottom to what you actually did see at the bottom?

CAMERON: I think that I was surprised that there was so little visible life because even at five miles depth in the New Britain Trench, there were still worm tracks and small vertebrate tracks all over the ground. And so I thought, OK, extrapolating from that, there should be quite a bit down there. And what I found was...


CAMERON: Flat and featureless. I don't see any animal tracks.

Almost featureless bottom that looked like new fallen snow.


CAMERON: Unbelievable, like the moon.

RAZ: So you spent three hours on the ocean floor, the deepest spot in the world. You've seen life that nobody has ever seen before and you've been to the Titanic - what - twice?

CAMERON: We did three expectations to Titanic in total, two of which were internal surveys where we went in with ROVs and explored around inside the wreck. And I've estimated that I've spent more time on the deck of Titanic than the captain of Titanic did...

RAZ: Wow.

CAMERON: Because he was only on - the ship sank only a few days into its lifespan.

RAZ: Right. I mean, that's a thing, like, it seems like you become curious about something, but you never - it's not like a journey to an endpoint.


RAZ: It's not like, OK, I'm going to find out everything about it and then I'm going to move on.

CAMERON: I eventually did move on, you know, I mean, I think after the third expedition I felt like even though there was more that could be found, that I had spent enough time to satisfy myself there. And I was happy to pass along the baton to anybody that wanted to come along afterward. But I'm a curious monkey. I mean, we all are to some extent. It's one of our great gifts as primates that we - you know, we want to pick things up and turn them over and see how they work and put them together and build tools. And, you know, science is curiosity acted upon, people going and investigating. Then one thing leads to another and pretty soon you've got a space faring civilization.


CAMERON: So what can we synthesize out of all of this, you know? What are the lessons learned? Well, I think number one is curiosity - it's the most powerful thing you own. Imagination is a force that can actually manifest a reality. And the respect of your team is more important than all of the laurels in the world. I have young filmmakers come up to me and say, you know, give me some advice for doing this. And I say don't put limitations on yourself. Other people will do that for you. Don't do it to yourself. Don't bet against yourself. And take risks. And NASA has this phrase that they like - failure is not an option. But failure has to be an option in Art and in exploration because it's a leap of faith. And no important endeavor that required innovation was done without risk. You have to be willing to take those risks. Whatever you're doing, failure is an option, but fear is not. Thank you.


RAZ: James Cameron. His film about diving to Challenger Deep is "Deep-Sea Challenge 3-D." He's taking a break from the ocean for a while. He's working on three "Avatar" movies set to be released on three consecutive Christmases starting in 2016. You can see his entire talk at


BARENAKED LADIES: If I climb a tree just to see what I see, does that make me curious? If I make a point of just cruising a joint, would that make me curious? And if it's profound, this just looking around, well, then geewhiz. Don't call me crazy, I've never been lazy, curious it is.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to the show this week from curiosity to discovery. If you missed any of it or you want to find out more about who was on it check out You can also find many, many more Ted Talks at I'm Guy Raz and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.