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A new book explores how military funding shaped the science of oceanography

Science on a mission
Naomi Oreskes
Univ. of Chicago, $ 40

In 2004, Japanese scientists captured the first underwater images of a living giant squid, an almost mythical creature from the deep ocean whose only interactions with humans had been through fishing nets or beaches where animals were dead or dying.

Being able to have such visibility could come much sooner. In 1965, marine scientist Frederick Aldrich had proposed studying these giants of the abyss using Alvin, a U.S. Navy-funded submarine operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. During the Cold War, however, studying marine life was not a top priority for the Navy, the largest funder of marine research in the United States. Instead, the Navy urgently needed information about the terrain of its new war theater and a deep understanding of the environment through which the submarines traveled.

In Science on a Mission, science historian Naomi Oreskes explores how naval funding has revolutionized our understanding of the science of land and ocean, especially plate tectonics and the deep circulation of the ocean. It also investigates the repercussions of the military’s influence on what we don’t yet know about the ocean.

The book begins just before World War II, when the influx of military dollars began. Oreskes describes how the great advances of science have germinated and weaved those relationships with deeply investigated stories of stabbed colleagues, coup attempts at oceanographic institutions, and daring deep-water adventures. The story culminates in the turmoil of the 1970s, when naval funding began to dry up and scientists struggled to find new sponsors. Oreskes ends with the recent struggles of oceanography to align its goals not with the military, but with climate science and marine biology.

Each chapter could be alone, but the book is best consumed as a network of stories about a group of people (mostly men, Oreskes points out), each of whom played a role in the history of oceanography. Oreskes uses these stories to explore the question of what difference it makes to who pays for science. “Many scientists would say nothing,” he writes. He argues the opposite, proving that naval support has led scientists to see the ocean as the Navy, as a place where men, machines, and sound travel. This perspective led oceanographers to ask questions in the context of what the Navy needed to know.

An example of Oreskes threads in the book is bathymetry. With the support of the Navy, scientists discovered submarine mountains and mapped in detail ridges and trenches of the middle ocean. “The Navy didn't care why there were ridges and escarpments; he simply needed to know, for navigation and other purposes, where they were, "he writes. But discovering these features helped scientists advance the idea that the Earth's outer layer is divided into discrete and moving tectonic plates (SN: 1 / 16/21, pp. 16).

Through the lens of naval necessity, scientists have also learned that the deep waters of the ocean move and mix. That was the only way to explain the thermocline, a rapidly declining temperature zone that separates warm surface waters from the cold deep ocean, which affected naval sonar. Scientists knew that acoustic transmissions depend on the density of water, which in the ocean depends on temperature and salinity. What the scientists discovered was that differences in density coupled with the rotation of the Earth lead to deep ocean currents that carry cold water to warm climates and vice versa, which in turn create the thermocline.

Undoubtedly, naval financing has illuminated physical aspects of the ocean. However, many oceanographers have failed to recognize that the ocean is also a "abode of life." Alvin’s inaugural years in the 1960s focused on rescue, acoustic research, and other naval needs until other funding agencies intervened. That change facilitated the startling discoveries of hydrothermal vents and gardens of life in the deep black of the deep ocean.

As dependence on the Navy diminished, many Cold War scientists and their apprentices struggled to reorient their research. For example, his view of the ocean, largely driven by acoustics and ignorant of how sound affects marine life, provoked a public backlash against studies that could harm sea creatures.

“Every history of science is a history of both the knowledge produced and the sustained ignorance,” Oreskes writes. "The impact of underwater sound on marine life," he says, "was a domain of ignorance."

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