Stefan Helmreich is the Elting E. Morison Professor of Anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His research has centered on how biologists think through the limits of “life” as a category of analysis.
At Radcliffe, Helmreich is completing a manuscript, tentatively titled The Book of Waves: An Anthropologist Reads Physical Oceanography, that offers an ethnographic account of how scientists measure, model, and monitor ocean waves in an era of climate change. Drawing on interviews and participant-observation at research centers in the United States, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere, Helmreich examines how oceanographers, coastal engineers, and mathematicians grapple with waves as entities at once manifestly material and analytically abstract. He asks how waves, known through fieldwork at sea, modeling in the lab, and, increasingly, computer simulation, might be read as media: material forms that relay information—oceanic, climatic, anthropogenic, political—to scientists and their publics.
Helmreich received his PhD in anthropology from Stanford University. His book, Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas (University of California Press, 2009) received the 2010 Senior Book Prize, the 2010 Gregory Bateson Book Prize, the 2012 Rachel Carson Book Prize, and the 2017 J. I. Staley Prize. An earlier book, Silicon Second Nature: Culturing Artificial Life in a Digital World (University of California Press, 1998) won the 2001 Diana Forsythe Prize, and a more recent text, Sounding the Limits of Life: Essays in the Anthropology of Biology and Beyond (Princeton University Press, 2016) won the 2016 Michelle Kendrick Memorial Book Prize.