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MIT School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences - Great Ideas Change the World

Research | Anthropology

What does an anthropologist of science do?


Meet Stefan Helmreich.

Following his acclaimed, award-winning book, Alien Ocean, Stefan Helmreich, Elting E. Morison Professor of Anthropology at MIT, has turned his attention to the world of wave science, the study of periodic, oscillating, and undulating phenomena.
 

Why would an anthropologist study waves?

Wave science finds application in fields such as oceanography, cosmology, electrical engineering, biomedicine, sports, and social science.

In his new research, Helmreich shows how waves are not only facts of nature, but a phenomenon mediated by considerable scientific and cultural interpretation. In fact, the very definition of waves is currently in transition, as waves are explored by new scientific modes of measurement and description.


Cultural influences on science, and our understanding nature

Scientists’ understanding of waves depends on infrastructure, Helmreich explains, such as proper equipment and training, which are predicated on human values, norms, and histories. In addition, the use of “wave” as a metaphor for the movement of ideas and trends through societies, cultures, and time gives the wave special anthropological importance.

“The cultural work of analogy in the sciences — natural and social both — fascinates me,” says Helmreich. “And waves are excellent vehicles for tracking that work.”

 

Full story

Image courtesy of Sunova Surfboards.

 


 

Suggested Links
 

MIT News on Stefan Helmreich’s book, Alien Ocean

Stefan Helmreich’s website

MIT Anthropology