Days of molten chrome, nights of damp black velvet.
We walk north through the desert near the Red Sea coast. We drip asterisks of sweat into the sand. We take shade in the scalding afternoons beneath highway overpasses that moan with traffic. We cross other shores.
One of them is a high concrete wall jutting above the fishing town of Thuwal.
Outside: dusty HiLux pickup trucks bucking down lumpy streets, reef fish split and sun dried in shop windows, and 870,000 square miles of Saudi Arabia. Inside: 14 square miles of fountains and palms, DNA sequencing labs, solar-powered buildings, some of them sheathed in beautiful translucent stone the color of seashells—a state-of-the-art research center and 21st-century campus built from empty desert, from nothing, in 1,000 days by 40,000 workers toiling round-the-clock. A digital library. A yacht club. A marine preserve. A FedEx. One of the fastest supercomputers in the world, named Shaheen—the Persian word for Peregrine Falcon. Seven hundred graduate students from across the globe. An outgoing administrator with NASA on his CV. An incoming one from CalTech. An endowment of $20 billion.
This is King Abdulla University of Science and Technology, Saudi Arabia’s showcase of learning, moderation, and modernization.
Male and female students comingle freely here—the only public university in the nation where this is permitted. Women can also drive. They walk about in jeans, unveiled. There is a cinema. (Banned elsewhere in the conservative Kingdom). A cleric on the Council of Senior Ulema, a body of top religious scholars in Saudi Arabia, condemned the opening of this extraordinary school in 2009 as evil, as sinful. He was sacked within a week by the reform-minded King Abdulla.
Another shore within a shore: the Red Sea Research Center on campus. Its associate director, Stein Kaartvedt, a tall, balding Norseman, is studying brine pools.
What is a brine pool?
The Red Sea is a canyon, an extension of the Great Rift Valley of Africa that happens to be submerged. At its greatest depths, in the lightless world below 6,000 feet, lie hidden abyssal “lakes” of highly compressed, geothermally heated water, so hypersaline that they do not mix with ordinary seawater.
These underwater lenses of brine can be 600 feet thick. At least 25 of them have been discovered. Collectively, they cover square miles of the Red Sea floor. They can be five to ten times saltier than seawater. They are loaded with toxic levels of metals such as iron, manganese, copper, and zinc—but also gold and silver—that has welled up from thermal vents. (This has caught the interest of mining companies.) The brine is the temperature of very hot spigot water. Some of the toughest life forms on the planet—”extremophile” bacteria—reside there.
Kaartvedt has filmed these lost worlds under the sea with a robotic submersible. He shows me the footage on his computer: the interface between the two liquids—regular seawater and brine—is weirdly visible. Disturbed by propellers, the brine ripples like a windblown pond. He tried immersing his submarine into the brine but couldn’t. The liquid was too dense. He has found dead sea life—squid—embalmed in the pools. These creatures are pickled. There is no telling how old they are.
“The largest brine lakes are subject to tidal forces, like all bodies of water,” Kaartvedt tells me. “I am interested in the biology of their shorelines. Yes, they have coasts that get covered and exposed by waves, too, just like the ordinary seaside.” He waves at the Red Sea shining outside his office windows. A shore within a shore within a shore. He grins happily at my unfeigned amazement.
It occurs to me that Stein Kaartvedt is the perfect man studying the perfect subject matter here at King Abdulla University of Science and Technology—the intertidal zone of change in Saudi Arabia.
Before I clear security at the campus gate—soldiers in fatigues, bullet-proof glass, badges, guns, all the semiotics of a hard shoreline—the university’s media minder, an intelligent, pleasant young Saudi woman, confesses that when she first heard I was coming (“some guy walking with camels from Africa”), she knew I had to be an outsider, and probably from the “developed world.” She forgets: To be human is to be extremophile.