Alien Ocean

Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas

by Stefan Helmreich

2017 J. I. Staley Prize

Alien Ocean, by Stefan Helmreich2009. University of California Press2009. University of California Press

The winner of this year’s prestigious J.I. Staley Prize is Dr. Stefan Helmreich for his book Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas. Working alongside marine biologists in the water and in labs in Monterey Bay, Hawai'i, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Sargasso Sea, and at undersea volcanoes in the eastern Pacific, Dr. Helmreich explores how the use of new technologies such as molecular biological techniques, gene sequencing, bioinformatics, and remote sensing have changed the way scientists study the Earth’s oceans and seas. “These scientists,” writes Dr. Helmreich in his introduction, “are learning to see the sea not only as the home medium for marine mammals, fishes, and seaweeds, but also as a realm inhabited, maintained, and modulated by an extraordinary mix of microbes, many of which live at astonishing extremes of light, temperature, pressure, and chemistry.” So unusual and unfamiliar are many of the microbes and their significance to the web of life that the word alien seems the best descriptive – to humans, no less mystifying than deep space and the life that may or may not exist in it.

The Staley Prize committee cites their reasons for choosing Alien Ocean as the winner of the 2017 J.I. Staley Prize:

Stefan Helmreich’s pioneering account of marine life and the people who study it takes readers on a journey from microbial DNA to oceanic and, ultimately, interstellar space. The vastness of the ocean emerges as both field site and object of study, which he renders, in lyrical and sometimes playful prose. Through a close analysis of the ocean’s oscillation between legibility and radical unknowability, Helmreich shows that in the twenty-first century microrganisms have become the primary focus of scientific knowledge production and resource extraction. He considers how new biotechnologies dissolve the interface between the human and non-human, thus disrupting the nature/culture binary and our understanding of life itself.

Stefan Helmreich is the Elting E. Morison Professor of Anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of Sounding the Limits of Life: Essays in the Anthropology of Biology and Beyond (Princeton University Press, 2016).

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