The Water Next Time: Changing Wavescapes in the Anthropocene, South and North

Lecture Series

April 15, 2016

4:30-6:00PM

Coulter Lounge

Do ocean waves have a history? This presentation by MIT professor Stefan Helmreich looks toward a future in which waves are not only known differently, through new kinds of computer modeling, for example, but also become differently composed material phenomena than once they were. Today’s wave scientists and modelers are predicting that climate change may not only transform the global distribution of significant wave heights, but may also (though the claim is controversial) amplify the frequency of rogue or freak waves, changing the world’s wavescape in novel ways. This presentation will deliver a history of ocean wave modeling in order to anchor an ethnographic report on how scientists think about whether waves (canonically imagined as not evolving, not decaying, but repeating, periodic–cyclical avatars of the ceaseless sea) may be transforming in synchrony with the political, economic, and social scene of the Anthropocene, and may be doing so differently in the southern and northern hemispheres.

About the Speaker

Stefan Helmreich received his PhD in Anthropology from Stanford University and prior to coming to MIT held fellowships at Cornell, Rutgers, and NYU. His research examines the works and lives of biologists thinking through the limits of "life" as a category of analysis. Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas (University of California Press, 2009) is a study of marine biologists working in realms usually out of sight and reach: the microscopic world, the deep sea, and oceans outside national sovereignty. This book, winner of the 2010 Senior Book Prize from the American Ethnological Society, the 2010 Gregory Bateson Book Prize from Society for Cultural Anthropology, and the 2012 Rachel Carson Book Prize from the Society for Social Studies of Science, charts how marine microbes are entangled with debates about the origin of life, climate change, property in the ocean commons, and the possibility of life on other worlds. An earlier book, Silicon Second Nature: Culturing Artificial Life in a Digital World (University of California Press, 1998) is an ethnography of computer modeling in the life sciences. In 2000, it won the Diana Forsythe Book Prize from the American Anthropological Association. Helmreich's newest research concerns the cultural circulation of such abstractions as "water," "sound," and "waves." His essays have appeared in Critical Inquiry, RepresentationsAmerican Anthropologist, and The Wire.

Free and open to the public.

Sponsored by the Global Voices Lecture Series, the Program on the Global Environment, the UChicago Ecologies Group, and the Norman Waite Harris Fund.