Studio City, California
Much of what we know about storms—and especially much of what we see about them on TV—comes from self-made storm chasers. Filming tornadoes up close and personal demands a love of adrenaline-pumping adventure and an intimate understanding of a twister’s cryptic workings. After nine years of running into and away from dangerous weather, storm chaser and IMAX filmmaker Sean Casey, 40, has mastered these skills and uses them to educate and entertain the public. Casey is most famous for footage that has aired on the Discovery Channel’s docudrama series Storm Chasers, which follows scientists as they deploy data-collecting probes inside tornadoes from the confines of 16,000-pound armored vehicles. But the filmmaker has been deciphering the natural world through IMAX films for some 21 years. “You have to really understand your subject matter so that you can film the more amazing parts of it,” says Casey, who has made films about volcanoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, ecology, and other subjects. “Going out with an IMAX camera,” he says, “appeals to my sense of hunting and gathering images.”
Solana Beach, California
“I grew up in Alaska. My dad ran a bush airline, and if you didn’t fix it yourself, it didn’t get fixed,” says Paul Breed, 46, owner of a small software company in California. “Since that point in time I have always been a builder of things.” Breed and his son have constructed prototype lunar landers to compete in the X-Prize Foundation’s Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, slated for late 2008. A $1 million prize will be given to the first team that can demonstrate a prototype capable of performing maneuvers that simulate ferrying a payload between the surface of the moon and lunar orbit.
Breed wants to show that small teams can build relatively inexpensive rockets—he’s doing it for less than half a million dollars. His lander design looks like the frame of a pyramid and uses hydrogen peroxide for fuel?. Breed and his son were the first team to publish online their full FAA experimental permit application, which painstakingly documents the safety of the trial, often a formidable barrier to entry. As Breed had hoped, other teams have copied their method. “This is a passion, not a moneymaking thing. If I can persuade three other people that a small team of two or three people can build serious rockets, that’s significant.”
San Jose, California
Impacts by asteroids have transformed the course of life on Earth, most famously by wiping out the dinosaurs. Identifying craters gives important information about how often impacts occur and what their effects on Earth might be. Unfortunately, geologic changes tend to erase these craters. Ian Kluft, a 42-year-old commercial pilot, believes he has identified a previously overlooked crater in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, famous for hosting the annual Burning Man arts and countercultural festival. Kluft’s first notion that Black Rock’s rocks were suggestive of an impact crater came during a trip there in 2003. Since then he has assembled an assortment of data supporting his idea that the remnants of an impact crater measuring 40 miles across can be found in the desert and its surroundings. Patterns in the layers and types of some rocks, as well as a series of concentric rings visible in satellite imagery, suggest a dramatic impact in the region.
Kluft began his research in earnest after finding the notations of two mining company geologists from the 1980s. “They had enough information between them that if they had even thought of it, they could have made the discovery in 1980,” Kluft says. He hopes to gather enough evidence to persuade a professional geologist to take on the quest.
Stephen Felton says snails may not look like much, but they fight mean—and they have been doing so for a long time. Some 450 million years ago, Cyclonema gastropods were attacking other snails by secreting acid onto their victims’ shells and then boring holes through them. While this mirrors the behavior of modern snails, no one knew their ancient relatives used the same strategy—until Felton came along.
For more than 40 years, Felton, 73, has been scouring the Cincinnati area’s fossil-rich geology as a pastime, assisting professional and fellow amateur geologists. A highlight of his career came in 2001 when the Paleontological Society recognized his achievements by awarding him the Harrell L. Strimple Award, which celebrates exceptional amateur paleontologists.