Shrunken Heads R Us!
(I Won a Major Award!!)


In September 1998, ABC News and the U of Washington Sea Grant program held a rather odd contest. A scientific expedition to Axial Seamount, an undersea site containing many geothermal vents and with a lot of unusual creatures that thrive in this unique environment, was launched - with regular reports posted on ABCNews's website by researchers Julie Huber & Jon Kaye and science writer David Gordon. Somewhere along the line, they purchased a bunch of styrofoam heads, used to put wigs on. They then mounted these heads on the undersea exploration vehicle. The pressure at Axial Seamount - just under a mile below the surface - is about 2,278 pounds per square inch. This squeezes most of the air out of the wig stand, so of course it shrinks. It started out at 26 cm tall (that's a tad over 10 inches) and the contest was to guess how high it would be after its journey to the seafloor.

Wig heads, wig heads, roly-poly wig heads... The BEFORE picture... the head in question was the one on the right. (Photo courtesy NOAA/PMEL via

Well I sent in a guess, the basis for which was primarily a pseudo-scientific combination of my own experiments with melting styrofoam with acetone, imagination, and pure luck. I thought why not, it was just silly enough...

A few weeks later, I got an email from David Gordon telling me I had won, then I saw the announcement on their webpage:

By the way, the winner of the shrunken wig head is Mike Whaley of Florida. Mike's guess of 13.7 centimeters was a mere 2.5 millimeters short of the mark. We were impressed with the number of responses (around 300), as well as the variation among guesstimates we received.

So now, I am the proud owner of a compressed, sort of dense, colorful and really neato-looking Styrofoam shrunken head, complete with a signed letter verifying its authenticity (we can't have any black-market imitation shrunken heads now, can we?) It's about as big around as a softball. They put a 1-inch mark on the base before it was taken to the sea floor, which now measures just under a half inch. The interesting part is that it shrunk uniformly... it looks just like it probably started out looking, just half the size. There is a slight warp in the flat base, and it looks a little like an alien face now, but it is definitely a shrunken human head. The artwork, which was apparently applied in permanent markers, it quite impressive and has a variety of designs and symbols related to the sea, the vehicle and the research mission... it would do a totem-pole maker proud! The texture is interesting, rather like coral rock perhaps. It weighs about the same as it started though, since only the air is gone, so it feels a bit hefty for a (formerly?) Styrofoam item. It sure doesn't feel like foam, it feels pretty solid.

Julie and Jon with my shrunken head The AFTER picture... Julie and Jon with my shrunken head - it's facing the camera this time. (Photo courtesy NOAA/PMEL via

So, I finally have my major award. Maybe it's not the Lotto, but in a way, there are far fewer people who have a real genuine deep-sea shrunken head than there are millionaires. So I feel special :) If you'd like to know the whole story of this research expedition, you can do so by clicking here.

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