Neptune Calling

Waves and Sweet & Salt are two new books dealing with the topic of the ocean

“Wave Signal”                                                                                          Photo:  Joseph G. Brin © 2012

Sweeping ocean vistas display their obvious beauty but waves speak an arcane language all their own. Frederic Raichlen, professor emeritus at Caltech and an expert on coastal engineering and wave mechanics, has a new book Waves (MIT Press). He is a kind of wave whisperer. A colleague once claimed that MIT Press could take any subject and make it boring. They failed here since this little pocket book, the latest in their “Essential Knowledge” series, is fascinating. Raichlen presents a specific formula, then suggests measuring wave intervals with a stop watch, “it's like taking the pulse of the ocean.” The book may not be for the math phobic. But you can still glean a more scientific appreciation of ocean wave phenomena and coastal transformation that will only increase your awe of 50 foot high tsunamis, 80 foot high rogue waves…and tiny ripples lifted by a gentle breeze across a pond. Raichlen then converts your bathtub into a handy testing tank for wave generation, pushing down and lifting water with the palm of the hand making homemade tsunamis…at scale. He discusses strategies and limitations of coastal breakwaters, seawalls and the like. His analysis of water and rock erosion by conceptual diagrams is intriguing. Additionally, as the best teachers do, he deftly applies analogy, illustrating an earthquake's effects by way of a piano keyboard. Waves gave me a more substantial understanding of the coastal impact of global warming. Surprisingly, though, I don't think there was a single mention of the term in the entire book.


Photo: Han Singels. Uiterwaarden bij Graaf, 2005 colour print, collection artist

Sweet & Salt, an elegant tome by Tracy Metz & Maartje van den Heuvel, provides further illumination as they outline the history of Dutch attempts to tame the ocean. This is combined with a broad survey of the arts and water, inspiring creative use of landscape design and water. As pioneers and masters of water control and containment, the Dutch have “been there, done that” but are now moving towards a more zen-like philosophy of accommodation. The cost to render invincible some 3,600 miles of U.S. eastern coastline in the face of impending oceanic doom is beyond both possibility and calculation. A recent, invaluable, short article (for the New Yorker) by Eric Klinenberg, “Adaptation,” provides other perspectives on the problem that may not make for dramatic headlines but is profound, nevertheless.

Social scientists have documented how relative social cohesion of one neighborhood allows its residents to survive natural disasters (like heat waves) as compared to adjacent populations of the same economic status, same demographic makeup facing the same forces of destruction – a prescriptive microcosm for a critically interdependent society. As Klinenberg's article indicates, even if the causes of climate change were halted today we've already bought decades of rising sea levels and fearsome atmospheric aberrations that will have to be faced. Across the world, new strategies are cropping up including floating pavilions, smart power grids, wetland restoration, farming new oyster beds, retreating to higher ground, and so on. Debate rages over whether or not to build massively expensive “hard” solutions, that take too long to build and are only temporary defenses against surges, not rising sea levels. A growing “architecture of accommodation” is what Klinenberg anticipates. A more subtle point is that these responses should represent a duality of purpose, enhancing ordinary city life not just thwarting disaster.

M3 Trident

Neptune, God of the Sea, just called. And he's upset. His eternal rhythms are increasingly contorted by strange influences from man-made atmospheres. Those who have camped their civilization at water's edge now face Neptune's revenge.

Creativity has to answer his call with optimism across all borders technical, social, and political. Essentially, affirming interdependence, a gift we've been blessed with since, at least, the Stone Age.


“Neptune's Reach”                                                                                    Photo: Joseph G. Brin © 2012

Joseph G. Brin is an architect, fine artist, and writer based in Philadelphia, PA.

Recent Viewpoints