Getting people fired up about esoteric scientific theories is seldom easy. But Gene Shinn, the avuncular senior geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey here, is an expert in the art of persuasion.
When all else fails, he pulls out the drums. They are everywhere in his creekside home: bongos and snares and kick drums, all worn from years of pounding.
"He knows how to throw a party," said his friend Sarah Andrews. "It's an unusual bag of talents: He hauls everybody in, gets them schnockered and plays the drums for them. He calls it his bonding ceremony."
Shinn worked for years on Andrews, a former geologist who writes scientific whodunit novels. Like most people, Andrews took some convincing when first approached by Shinn about his maverick theory that coral reefs off the Florida coast and in the Caribbean are being killed by tiny microorganisms that thrive for days inside giant dust clouds lifted out of the African desert and carried across the Atlantic Ocean by the trade winds.
Fellow scientists have called Shinn's theory "outrageous," "extreme," "imaginative."
But he hasn't wavered. If anything, he has grown more evangelical in the six years or so since he started talking about the theory. Over the years, he has cultivated a cadre of scientists around his cluttered office here: a coral reef biologist who used to live on a boat in the Virgin Islands, a meticulous graduate student, a microbiologist fresh out of a doctoral program. Shinn calls them "The Dustbusters."
While they tinker, Shinn dreams. And his dreams are scary.
He imagines terrorists tossing piles of anthrax into the air in Africa and the spores riding the windblown dust clouds before descending to wreak havoc in the United States.
"I've laid awake worrying about this stuff," Shinn said in a recent interview.
Shinn tried out the terrorism bit on Andrews, hoping to persuade her to write a novel based on his theory, but she wasn't going for it. That is, not until Sept. 11, 2001. Suddenly terrorism seemed more real than ever. She called Shinn at his office that afternoon. He was the only one there.
"You were right," she remembered saying.
The conversation led to Andrews's eighth novel, aptly named "Killer Dust." Shinn, who beams about being the model for a character in the novel, has handed out countless copies of her book to officials at the Geological Survey, hoping it will scare them into coming up with more money for research. This year, $750,000 was budgeted for the project that Shinn once called "my crazy idea."
But one gets the sense that Shinn, who has a great shock of wavy, white hair and tanned forearms freckled from a lifetime in the Florida sun, would figure out a way to study his theory even if there were no money. He has always subscribed to an unorthodox brand of old-fashioned science, supplemented by old-fashioned good luck, that has drawn legions of admirers, the most enthusiastic of whom call him a "genius."
"Interest-driven science isn't tolerated the way it used to be," Shinn groused. "Scientists are like herding a bunch of cats -- there's too many committees along the way. Committees never discover anything new."
Shinn became interested in coral reefs in the early 1960s when he was fresh out of the University of Miami, where he had enrolled on a music scholarship before switching to biology. In those days, he was a competitive spear fisherman -- he won two national titles.
He took a job with Shell Oil Co., but on weekends he would conduct experiments during breaks from his endless quest to harpoon dinner four miles off Key Largo. He snapped underwater photographs of the same coral formation every year starting in 1960 and kept taking pictures after tiring of the corporate world and going to work for the Geological Survey in 1974.
His photographs, often with his wife, Patricia Shinn, swimming in the background for perspective, created a remarkable four-decade log of coral decay. What began as a plump, vibrant coral colony that resembled a human brain when Shinn was in his twenties has become a hard, lifeless lump now that he is 70.
Shinn eventually realized that some of the major die-offs in coral reefs in the 1980s coincided with droughts in Africa that produced enormous dust clouds, suggesting to him there might be a connection that could provide an alternative theory to the long-held belief that pollution and human contact are primarily responsible for the death of delicate coral reefs. But he had no proof.
Then he met Ginger Garrison, a National Park Service biologist. Not long after Shinn told her about his theory, she found herself sitting on a bus in Costa Rica next to Garriet Smith, a coral expert from the University of South Carolina. It was sheer coincidence, but Garrison didn't want to pass up the opportunity -- she talked Smith into comparing fungus contained in African dust that she had collected in the Caribbean with the spores that he had proven were killing coral sea fans.
The very first sample she sent him showed a match. Suddenly the theory wasn't sounding so crazy.
"There's been a good bit of serendipity in all this," Garrison said.
Since then, the little band of Dustbusters has grown. Elizabeth Merman, a University of South Florida graduate student, spent months dissecting Caribbean coral skeletons and found particles that Shinn believes were deposited by windblown ash and dust from the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa. Microbiologist Dale Griffin found Aspergillus sydowii -- a fungus commonly found in the Caribbean during African dust storms -- in dying sea fans. Shinn calls Griffin's find his "smoking gun."
Every month, it seems, someone contacts them from somewhere in the world offering to help. A professor in Turkey set up an observation tower to collect dust samples; the son of an American ambassador in Africa persuaded his schoolmates to collect samples.
Yet, even as they make more discoveries, Shinn is still waiting for widespread acceptance of his killer-dust theories. One recent afternoon, a smirking college professor stopped him at a sandwich shop near his office.
"How's the world of dust?" the professor asked.
Shinn just sighed.
He left it that. After all, he was stuck there without his drums.