ON THE PACIFIC, Day 5: Jonás and the tiny Styrofoam cups

From June 25 to July 9, UO geophysicist Dean Livelybrooks and a team of national scientists on board the Atlantis research vessel will recover earthquake-monitoring equipment in the Pacific Ocean. Follow tweets and other activity at @uocas and #uoshiptrip. Visit explorationnow.org/atlantis to follow the action live. To read previous dispatches from the Atlantis, visit http://around.uoregon.edu/cascadia-initiative.

Research can take some pretty interesting forms on a vessel out to sea for two weeks.

On June 29, for example, Jonás Cervantes of Linn-Benton Community College conducted the Tiny Styrofoam Cup experiment.

Jonás is a physics major who hopes to work in the space industry and perhaps one day leave Earth’s atmosphere. He was on the Atlantis as part of the “CC at Sea” program run by UO geophysicist Dean Livelybrooks, which gives community college students the opportunity to get their feet wet – so to speak – with an ocean research trip during which they explore science, technology, engineering and math.

Jonás is really warming up to the experience. He’s a regular contributor to live broadcasts of the ship’s research missions coordinated by Linn-Benton physics instructor Greg Mulder.

Jonás was especially excited about the Styrofoam cup experiment, which goes like this: See what happens when you put a bunch of 16-ounce Styrofoam cups in a mesh bag and attach it to equipment that is then sunk 900 meters to the ocean floor to help measure earthquake vibrations.

The expectation is that the increased pressure at the deeper depths will squeeze air out of the Styrofoam cups and shrink them.

While the equipment – and the cups – were at the bottom of the ocean, Jonás and I joked about the gravity of our experiment.

“ ‘Hey, what kind of research did you conduct on the Atlantis?’ ” Jonás said, laughing. “ ‘I went out into the Pacific ocean so I could make these Styrofoam cups tiny.’ ”

A couple hours later, the equipment was lifted to the surface along with our mesh bag full of Styrofoam cups. And sure enough, cups that once would have satisfied a hefty thirst came back the size of shot glasses.

Jonás was pretty pleased. His cup was like a miniature version of the one he’d written LBCC on at the start of the experiment; the lettering was intact but the Styrofoam material had taken on a hard, almost dessicated texture.

Not exactly space-age science that will rocket Jonás to new frontiers. But he enjoyed the experiment enough to start plotting a follow-up during which the cups will be plunged even deeper into the Pacific.

If you shrink the Styrofoam cups enough, he reasons, they’ll make nice earrings.

- by Matt Cooper, UO Office of Strategic Communications