Flipping the Ship: Ocean Waves, Media Orientations, and Objectivity at Sea
The FLoating Instrument Platform (FLIP), a seagoing vessel managed by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, in La Jolla, California, offers an unorthodox vantage point on the sea.
Stefan Helmreich | Media+Environment | Image: Stefan Helmreich
June 11, 2021
The FLoating Instrument Platform (FLIP), a seagoing vessel managed by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, in La Jolla, California, offers an unorthodox vantage point on the sea. In its horizontal conformation, FLIP travels like an ordinary oceangoing craft. But by “flipping” 90 degrees into a vertical position once it arrives at its destination—with all the furniture and instrumentation inside swiveling correspondingly—it becomes an enormous spar buoy, more or less stationary in the wave field. With most of the platform’s 108-meter length below the surface, scientists can work in a stable environment, which helps them study sea surface phenomena such as waves against a largely unwavering baseline. This article offers an anthropologically informed media studies account of work on FLIP, as the author reports on working ethnographically alongside wave scientists in this Escheresque environment, a setting that often sees scientists shifting between aspirations to steady objectivism and moments of fleeting but motivating wonder. Placing FLIP in a longer history of physical oceanography, the author also argues that what wave scientists take ocean waves to be has been strongly imprinted by the techniques and technologies—mathematics, photography, spectral analysis, wave tanks—through which waves have been studied and come to be known. Wave science also inherits knowledge from mid-twentieth-century ocean observation projects in the Pacific Ocean that were conditioned by Cold War American maritime expansion. The paper suggests that the technological mediations, orientations, and re-orientations offered to scientists at sea on FLIP may serve as allegories for apprehending American oceanography’s oscillating visions of the relationship of science to society, of present research to future implications, and of objectivity to politics — visions that come into focus as scientists (and their anthropological interlocutors) switch, alternate, and flip their paradigm scripts, their frames of epistemic reference.