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The sea that science makes: An anthropological view of marine research and ocean worlds in the age of genomics and informatics

Stefan Helmreich, Ph.D.
Pitzer College, Anthropology

Wednesday, October 23, 2002
3:00 p.m. – Pacific Forum

 

"The world is being broken down to be built up again, and eventually the sense of the new worlds will come out of the laboratory and penetrate into the smallest living techniques and habits of the whole people."
– John Steinbeck, foreword to Ed Ricketts and Jack Calvin’s Between Pacific Tides

Scientific visions of the ocean world have transformed radically since the beginning of professional oceanography in the nineteenth century, often in line with changes in technologies of remote sensing. During the nineteenth century, the deep sea was a mystery, an unfathomable zone to be plumbed with lead line and discovered through dredging. In the early twentieth century, the sea became an echo chamber, mapped using sound. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we are witnessing an increasing emphasis on visualizing and even textualizing the deep, using the tools of computer imaging, genomics, and bioinformatics. As images from deep-diving robots are uploaded to the web, and as marine genes are downloaded into databases, we might even say that we are witnessing a return to the most literal charter of oceanography, the writing down of the sea. To borrow Steinbeck’s phrasing, the ocean world is being broken down by such activities as marine genomics, biotechnology, and digital visualization. It is being built up again as a newly networked, increasingly transparent space, full of ever-smaller, ever-stranger creatures whose genetic codes reveal them to be both alien and kin to humans. How will the sense of these new ocean worlds come out of the laboratory to shape our broader living techniques and perceptions of the sea around us? This talk will explore this question from an anthropological perspective, examining how scientific portraits of the sea draw from and also transform the wider culture of which they are a part. In the spirit of anthropological inquiry, the talk will invite commentary from audience scientists, those arguably at the center of the making of this new ocean.

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