Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Wave

The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean
Susan Casey

What's the matter, John? Blue Meanies?

Newer and bluer Meanies have been sighted within the vicinity of this theater. There's only one way to go out.

How's that?


It’s a great ending to Yellow Submarine, and if you think of the “Blue Meanies” as the giant unpredictable waves becoming more and more prevalent in the oceans due to global warming, you can substitute “surfing!” for “singing!” and you’ll have an idea of half of Susan Casey’s book. As waves became bigger, surfers like Laird Hamilton have adapted, creating a new kind of surfing in order to ride 60 and 70 foot waves, which are too powerful and far from the shore to paddle to. Now a surfer is towed by a jet ski and positioned on the water to catch previously unobtainable waves. The risk is much greater that far from shore. Experienced surfers have drowned. The book contains a description of a particularly gruesome accident with a life-saving rescue by Hamilton, who hotwires a stalled jet ski with pair of iPod earphones and uses his wetsuit as a tourniquet.

In contrast to surfers with their spiritual quest to experience great waves, there are the other stars of Casey’s book, the scientists who try to understand the water and predict its behavior.

“Well, it’s not oceanographers looking at them anymore. It’s physicists! Because they’re discovered that these waves are behaving in a manner that is similar to light waves. They can suck the energy from both sides and concentrate it in one spot. And light waves are partially particles and partially wavelike. It’s moving [the study of waves] into a whole different dimension.”

The nature of light has been one of the conundrums of physics, because sometimes light acts like a wave and sometimes it acts like a particle. The idea that the water in the ocean may be the same way underscores a point made throughout the book: we really don’t know very much about the ocean. With global warming, the little we knew may no longer be true. For years sailors told stories of enormous monster waves in otherwise calm seas. Such tales were dismissed as physically impossible. Now it seems that they were happening and may become more of the norm.

A statistic is repeated several times in this book: on average, two large ships are lost at sea every week. The fact that this statistic is little known, let alone a source of widespread outrage, says a lot about how much we take for granted in a global marketplace. One of the effects of living in a technologically developed country is that you assume things are stable; in fact you come to depend on it. The chaos is kept far away; others have to deal with it. The people Casey interviews are all dealing with the chaos in various ways. Some try to understand it and others try to ride it, if for only a few moments.

On a slow day at work, slow because of a snowstorm the previous night (speaking of chaotic nature), I lent The Wave to our receptionist. At the end of the day, she returned it to me, saying that it was scaring the hell out of her but she couldn’t stop reading it and she was going to have to get her own copy. A perfectly succinct review.

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