24/7 Space News
Dreaming of waves
stock image only
Dreaming of waves
by Peter Dizikes for MIT News
Boston MA (SPX) Aug 30, 2023

Ocean waves are easy on the eyes, but hard on the brain. How do they form? How far do they travel? How do they break? Those magnificent waves you see crashing into the shore are complex.

"I've often asked this question," the eminent wave scientist Walter Munk told MIT Professor Stefan Helmreich several years ago. "If we met somebody from another planet who had never seen waves, could [they] dream about what it's like when a wave becomes unstable in shallow water? About what it would do? I don't think so. It's a complicated problem."

In recent decades scientists have gotten to know waves better. In the 1960s, they confirmed that waves travel across the world; a storm in the Tasman Sea can create great surf in California. In the 1990s, scientists obtained eye-opening measurements of massive "rogue" waves. Meanwhile experts continue tailoring a standard model of waves, developed in the 1980s, to local conditions, as data and theory keep influencing each other.

"Waves are empirical and conceptual phenomena both," writes Helmreich in his new work, "A Book of Waves," published this month by Duke University Press. In it, Helmreich examines the development of wave science globally, the propagation of wave theory into other areas of life - such as the "waves" of the Covid-19 pandemic - and the way researchers develop both empirical knowledge and abstractions describing nature in systematic terms.

"Wave science is constantly going back and forth between registering data and interpreting that data," says Helmreich, the Elting E. Morison Professor of Anthropology at MIT. "The aspiration of so much wave science has been to formalize and automate measurement so that everything becomes a matter of simple data registration. But you can never get away from the human interpretation of those results. Humans are the ones who care about what waves are doing."

"You need the world"
Helmreich has long been interested in ocean science. His 2009 book "Alien Ocean" examined marine biologists and their study of microbes. In 2014, Helmreich presented material that wound up in "A Book of Waves" while delivering the Lewis Henry Morgan lectures at the University of Rochester, the nation's oldest anthropology lecture series.

To research the book, Helmreich traveled far and wide, from the Netherlands to Australia, among other places, often embedding himself with researchers. That included a stint on board the FLIP ship, a unique, now-retired vessel operated by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which could turn itself from a long horizontal vessel into a kind of giant live-aboard vertical buoy, for conducting wave measurements. The FLIP ship is one of many distinctive wave science tools; as the book draws out, this has been a diverse and even quirky field, methodologically, with wave scientists approaching their subject from all angles.

"Ocean and water waves look very different in different national contexts," Helmreich says. "In the Netherlands, interest in waves is very much bound up with hydrogical engineers' desires to keep the country dry. In the United States, ocean wave science was crucially formatted by World War II, and the Cold War, and military prerogatives."

As it happens, the late Munk (1917-2019), who The New York Times once called "The Einstein of waves," developed some of his insights and techniques while helping to forecast wave heights for the Allied invasion of Normandy in World War II. In spinning out his thought experiment about aliens to Helmreich, Munk was making the case for empiricism in wave science.

"Mathematical formalisms and representations are vital to understanding what waves are doing, but they're not enough," Helmreich says. "You need the world."

Disney makes waves
But as Helmreich also emphasizes in his work, wave science depends on a delicate interplay between theory, modeling, and inventive empirical research. What might the Disney film "Fantasia" have to do with wave science? Well, movies used to rely on optical film recordings to play their soundtracks; "Fantasia's" film soundtrack also had schematic renderings of sound levels. British wave scientists realized they could adapt this technique of depicting sound patterns to represent sets of waves.

For that matter, by the 1960s, scientists also began categorizing waves into a wave spectrum, sorted by the frequency with which they arrived at the shore. That idea comes directly from the concept of spectra of light, radio, and sound waves. In this sense, existing scientific concepts have periodically been deployed by wave researchers to make sense of what they already can see.

"The book asks questions about the relationship between reality and its representations," Helmreich says. "Waves are obviously empirical things in the world. But understanding how they work requires abstractions, whether you are a scientist at sea, a surfer, or an engineer trying to figure out what will happen at a coastline. And those representations are influenced by the tools scientists use, whether cameras, pressure sensors, sonar, film, buoys, or computer models. What scientists think waves are is imprinted by the media they use to study waves."

As Helmreich notes, the interdisciplinary nature of wave science has evolved. Physics shaped wave science for much of the 20th century. More recently, as scientists recognize that waves transmit things like agricultural runoff and the aerosolized signatures of coastal communities' car exhaust, biological and chemical oceanographers have entered the field. And climate scientists and engineers are increasingly concerned with rising sea levels and seemingly bigger waves.

"Ocean waves used to belong to the physcists," Helmreich says. "Today a lot of it is about climate change and sea level rise."

The shape of things to come
But even as other fields have fed into ocean wave science, so too has wave science influenced other disciplines. From medicine to social science, the concept of the wave has been applied to social phenomena to help organize our understanding of matters such as disease transmission and public health.

"People use the figure of the wave to think about the shape of things to come," Helmreich says. "Certainly we saw that during the Covid pandemic, that the wave was considered to be both descriptive, of what was happening, and predictive, about what would happen next."

Scholars have praised "A Book of Waves." Hugh Raffles, a professor and chair of anthropology at The New School, has called it "a model of expansive transdisciplinary practice," as well as "a constant surprise, a mind-opening recalibration of the ways we assemble nature, science, ethnography, and the arts."

Helmreich hopes readers will consider how extensively social, political, and civic needs have influenced wave studies. Back during World War II, Walter Munk developed a concept called "significant wave height" to help evaluate the viability of landing craft off Normandy.

"There's an interesting, very contingent history to the metric of significant wave height," Helmreich says. "But one can open up the concept of significance to ask: Significant for whom, and for what? Significance, in its wider cultural meaning is about human projects, whether to do with warfare, coastal protection, humanitarian rescue at sea, shipping, surfing, or recreation of other kinds. How waves become significant is an anthropological question. "A Book of Waves" seeks to map the many different ways that waves have become significant to people."

Related Links
School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
Understanding Time and Space

Subscribe Free To Our Daily Newsletters

The following news reports may link to other Space Media Network websites.
Golden rules for building atomic blocks
Singapore (SPX) Aug 30, 2023
National University of Singapore (NUS) physicists have developed a technique to precisely control the alignment of supermoire lattices by using a set of golden rules, paving the way for the advancement of next generation moire quantum matter. Moire patterns are formed when two identical periodic structures are overlaid with a relative twist angle between them or two different periodic structures but overlaid with or without twist angle. The twist angle is the angle between the crystallographic ori ... read more

China continues to make strides in space breeding technique

Artificial star

Station Hosts 11 Crewmates from Five Countries

A multinational crew blasts off from Florida, heading for the International Space Station

Sea launch 1st by Chinese private entity

Japan launches telescope and moon lander following weather delays

Another successful hot-fire test for Ariane 6 upper stage

Pulsar Fusion forms partnership with University of Michigan for electric propulsion

China publishes new datasets obtained by Mars, lunar probes

Sols 3932-3933: Touch and Go, Go, Go!

Mars helicopter Ingenuity completes 56th flight

Copy and Paste at Gale Crater: Sols 3934-3935

China solicits names for manned lunar exploration vehicles

From rice to quantum gas: China's targets pioneering space research

China to launch "Innovation X Scientific Flight" program, applications open worldwide

Scientists reveal blueprint of China's lunar water-ice probe mission

Vodafone and Amazon's Project Kuiper to extend connectivity in Africa and Europe

SpaceX sends 22 new Starlink satellites into orbit in 60th launch of 2023

Intuitive Machines announces $20M equity investment

LeoStella and Hera Systems Establish Strategic Alliance

SatixFy announces strategic $60M transaction with MDA

ReOrbit completes oversubscribed seed funding round

Terran Orbital unveils new product line of seven satellite buses

A system to keep cloud-based gamers in sync

Newly discovered planet has longest orbit yet detected by the TESS mission

Thermometer molecule confirmed on exoplanet WASP-31b

New giant planet evidence of possible planetary collisions

Hot Jupiter blows its top

SwRI will lead Hubble, Webb observations of Io, Jupiter's volcanic moon

In the service of planetary science, astrophysics and heliophysics

Mysterious Neptune dark spot detected from Earth for the first time

Neptune's Disappearing Clouds Linked to the Solar Cycle

Subscribe Free To Our Daily Newsletters


The content herein, unless otherwise known to be public domain, are Copyright 1995-2023 - Space Media Network. All websites are published in Australia and are solely subject to Australian law and governed by Fair Use principals for news reporting and research purposes. AFP, UPI and IANS news wire stories are copyright Agence France-Presse, United Press International and Indo-Asia News Service. ESA news reports are copyright European Space Agency. All NASA sourced material is public domain. Additional copyrights may apply in whole or part to other bona fide parties. All articles labeled "by Staff Writers" include reports supplied to Space Media Network by industry news wires, PR agencies, corporate press officers and the like. Such articles are individually curated and edited by Space Media Network staff on the basis of the report's information value to our industry and professional readership. Advertising does not imply endorsement, agreement or approval of any opinions, statements or information provided by Space Media Network on any Web page published or hosted by Space Media Network. General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) Statement Our advertisers use various cookies and the like to deliver the best ad banner available at one time. All network advertising suppliers have GDPR policies (Legitimate Interest) that conform with EU regulations for data collection. By using our websites you consent to cookie based advertising. If you do not agree with this then you must stop using the websites from May 25, 2018. Privacy Statement. Additional information can be found here at About Us.