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Institute of Advanced Study

Professor Stefan Helmreich

IAS Fellow & Prowse Fellow at Van Mildert College, Durham University (January - March 2010)

Stefan Helmreich is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he has also served as Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society. After receiving a doctorate from Stanford University, he worked as a Postdoctoral Associate in Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University, as an External Faculty Fellow at the Center for Critical Analysis of Contemporary Culture at Rutgers University, and as an Assistant Professor of Science and Society at New York University. In recent years, he has been a Visiting Scholar in Social Sciences at the University of Iceland. His research has been funded by the National Science Foundation and the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.

Professor Helmreich's anthropological research examines the works and lives of contemporary biologists puzzling through the conceptual boundaries of "life" as a category of analysis. He has written extensively on Artificial Life, a field dedicated to the computer simulation of living systems, notably in Silicon Second Nature: Culturing Artificial Life in a Digital World (University of California Press, 1998), which in 2001 won the Diana Forsythe Book Prize from the American Anthropological Association. Further results from this work have appeared in Artificial Life; Critique of Anthropology; Cultural Anthropology; Science as Culture; Science, Technology, and Human Values; and Social Studies of Science.

His newest book, Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas (University of California Press, 2009), is a study of marine biologists working in realms usually out of sight and reach: the microscopic world, the deep sea, and oceans outside national sovereignty. Working alongside scientists in labs and at sea - in Monterey Bay, Hawaii, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Bermuda Triangle, and the undersea volcanoes of the Juan de Fuca Ridge - Helmreich charts how revolutions in genomics, bioinformatics, and remote sensing press marine biologists to see the sea as animated by its smallest inhabitants: marine microbes. Scientists render marine microbes meaningful as pointers to the origin of life, as barometers of climate change, as raw materials for biotechnology, and as analogues for extraterrestrial life. Results from this project have appeared in American Ethnologist; BioSocieties; Grey Room; The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute; Maritime Studies: Melville Society Extracts; Science as Culture; and The Wire.

Professor Helmreich serves on the editorial boards of Cultural Anthropology and Science as Culture. His work has been translated from English into French, German, and Spanish.

While at the Durham Institute of Advanced Study, he will begin conceptualizing a new project, a comparative anthropology of waves and wave phenomena. He will be interested in the science and symbolism of water waves, the measurement and making of underwater sound waves, and the use of electromagnetic waves to infer the presence of water (and possibly life) on extraterrestrial planets. These topics continue and combine Professor Helmreich's interests in the making of knowledge in oceanography and biology. As an anthropologist, he will be particularly keen to track how conceptions of waves travel across diverse domains of cultural practice.

Fellow's Home Page


Professor Stefan Helmreich Publications

Helmreich, S (2013) ‘Underwater Music: Tuning Composition to the Sounds of Science’ in Pinch, T., Bijsterveld, K. (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies. Oxford. Oxford University Press, pp. 151 – 175 

Helmreich, S (2011) 'What Was Life? Answers from Three Limit Biologies', Critical Inquiry, 37(4), pp. 671-696.

Helmreich, S (2011) 'Nature/Culture/Seawater', American Anthropologist , 113(1), pp. 132-144.

Helmreich, S (2010) 'Human Nature at Sea', Anthropology Now, 2(3), pp. 49-60.

Kirksey Eben, S., Helmreich, S (2010) 'The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography', Cultural Anthropology, 25(4), pp. 545-575.

Helmreich, S ., Roosth, S (2010) 'Life Forms: A Keyword Entry', Representations, 1<span >12, pp. 27-53.

IAS Insights Paper


This piece presents preliminary, exploratory thinking toward a cultural - perhaps ethnographic - study of how people in a variety of domains use watery metaphors and symbols to think about wave phenomena, from physics to biology to social theory. To be sure, ricochets of analogical thinking about waves have been tracked before. Historians of science have provided documentary accounts of how models of electromagnetism congealed around water wave comparisons. And literary theorists such as Gillian Beer have examined the calibration of wave theory to the rise of early twentieth-century modernism and some of its epistemological accompaniments, including relativist attitudes toward the relation of the real to the represented (are waves real or an artifact of how we frame questions?) as well as scientifically inflected apperceptions of worlds unseen, from the unconscious to the realm of wireless radio imagined as an etheric ocean. Today, scientific and popular visions of reality as constituted by waves endure - with watery imagery never far behind - and often underwrite universalizing claims about the world, from quantum mechanics up to descriptions of the rise and fall of social movements (e.g. waves of feminism). Such visions - which often refer to ripples on ponds, breakers on the shore - signal a tendency to construe waves as ordinary, even canonically natural phenomena. But more self-conscious deployments of waves have lately come into view, ones that call attention to waves' varied cultural and, indeed, natural weight - as, for example, with research into the military-industrial production of shock waves, the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the politics of surfing in post-colonial Hawaii. Inspired by such reflexive deployments, this essay is a thought experiment that plays with ways to think, today, about the matter and meaning of water and waves. It is meant to be impressionistic and suggestive rather than authoritative.

Insights Paper