Stefan Helmreich, “A Book of Waves” (Duke UP, 2023)

In A Book of Waves (Duke UP, 2023), Stefan Helmreich examines ocean waves as forms of media that carry ecological, geopolitical, and climatological news about our planet. Drawing on ethnographic work with oceanographers and coastal engineers in the Netherlands, the United States, Australia, Japan, and Bangladesh, Helmreich details how scientists at sea and in the lab apprehend waves’ materiality through abstractions, seeking to capture in technical language these avatars of nature at once periodic and irreversible, wild and pacific, ephemeral and eternal. For researchers and their publics, the meanings of waves also reflect visions of the ocean as an environmental infrastructure fundamental to trade, travel, warfare, humanitarian rescue, recreation, and managing sea level rise. Interleaving ethnographic chapters with reflections on waves in mythology, surf culture, feminist theory, film, Indigenous Pacific activisms, Black Atlantic history, cosmology, and more, Helmreich demonstrates how waves mark out the wakes and breaks of social histories and futures.

 Stefan Helmreich is an anthropologist who studies how scientists in oceanography, biology, acoustics, and computer science define and theorize their objects of study, particularly as these objects — waves, life, sound, code — reach their conceptual limits.

Tamara Fernando is an assistant professor in the History of the Global South, at Stony Brook University, New York. Her research and teaching interests are located at the intersection of labor, environment, and science histories, with a specific focus on the nineteenth and twentieth-century Indian Ocean world. Her current book project, “Shallow Blue Empire: Knowing the Littoral across the Indian Ocean,” aspires to uncover a “history below the water line” through a trans-national account of the pearling industry across the northern Indian Ocean. This work centers on the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Mannar, and the Mergui/Myeik archipelago, elucidating how modes of knowledge about the littoral zone of the ocean were determined in the context of the British Empire at the turn of the twentieth century. She is deeply committed to employing trans-regional and interdisciplinary methods in the study of the past, as well as addressing the question of how to craft global histories of science.

Her second book project, “Submarine Futures: Science and Expertise in the Indian Ocean 1872-2004,” traces human engagements with the ocean through three objects: the shipwreck, the nuclear submarine, and the deep-sea port across key nodes in the Indian Ocean. This endeavor explores how scientific disciplines like maritime archaeology continue to shape notions of the Indian Ocean’s “cosmopolitan” and inter-connected pasts.

Ahmed Yaqoub AlMaazmi is a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University. His research focuses on the intersection of law, the occult sciences, and the environment across the Western Indian Ocean. He can be reached by email at or on Twitter @Ahmed_Yaqoub. Listeners’ feedback, questions, and book suggestions are most welcome.

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