The Flattened Ocean

image: nasa

In ancient times, philosophers believed the earth was flat. The term “flat-earth” is used today as a derogatory comment for those who hold antiquated views. But when you consider how we depict our world as land and sea we use still two dimensions — length and breath — in the form of maps and charts and even the frame of our modern navigation devices and computer screens. Only recently have we begun to be able to manipulate knowledge as recorded data in a volumetric third dimension which can then be visualized as historically documented change and projected possibility for the future. This is a radically new way to view the world.

At a recent conference on water history, I was fascinated by a presentation by Dr. Whitney Barlow Robles from Harvard University on “Flattening Sea Life in the 18th Century.” Yes, this was a fairly narrow iteration of the flattened ocean but it contained a number of obvious and not so obvious observations on how what we know is collected, transmitted, accumulated into what we call “science,” and otherwise is applied as part of a sociopolitical dynamic.

map of southern hemisphere showing discoveries made in the southern ocean up to 1770. image source: cartographic material / James Cook

Natural scientists, our first explorers, joined ship passages and organized expeditions to observe the miracles of a world expanding through transportation, trade, and dominion. They collected specimens on lengthy passages, painted images, described characteristics, and pressed samples onto paper in two dimensions as their contributions to writing “the book of Nature,” such compendia easily transported aboard ship and stored in personal and thereafter institutional libraries. Our early scientific societies became the lively outlet for sharing this knowledge and the curiosities assembled became the core of major museums whose collections rely heavily in part on that effort to this day. The journals, sketch books, diagrams, and crude charts became the stuff of new tools for visualizing the world in books, maps, projections, sailing instructions, and even visualization as flattened “skins” on the surfaces of globes, large ones in the halls of science and pocket ones in the kits of scientists and explorers of ensuing generations.

Dr. Robles suggested some interesting further ideas derived from this history. In some cases, the species and data assembled was collected by slaves; the exchange of such information became a text in the sharing of concepts and cultural values; awareness of astronomy, anthropology, gastronomy, economics, and historical process was enhanced though these artifacts; and the exchange of such documents enabled imperial extension, governance, and communication amplified in parallel with the physical exchange of goods, people, and ideas. The ocean was the conduit for all this as the surface of connection. When that surface was in tumult, ships, men, cargo, and knowledge were lost.

antique map from 1914 science book

The connections to circumstance today are obvious. When we find such lost ships today we approach them as newfound knowledge that will confirm, modify, or deny what we think we know from the past. When we explore the ocean today, we continue to collect exponentially volumetric data, documenting an astonishingly unknown part of the world with underwater and satellite observation in minute and comprehensive detail. And that too, miniaturized, is expressed in two dimensions in our academic papers, graphs, powerpoints, data visualizations, calculation models, real-time videos and documentary films. Even our reports, plans, regulations, legislative proposals, laws, treaties, and secrets are communicated in this flattened form. Despite all our progress, we still only express and understand in two dimensions.

How do we add dimensionality to our thinking? I often ask the question: when you look at the sky how many dimensions do you see? That same holds true for the ocean where most often we see only a composition of water and atmosphere divided by the horizon line. But the ocean most decidedly is not flat. It is a multi-dimensional dynamic place of change and exchange that encompasses and thus relates to every aspect of our being. We will never truly understand it seeing only length and breadth; we must find depth — not just in the form of soundings, so many feet surface to bottom, here or there, but most importantly in the form of integrated response in every aspect, every dimension, of our future.

The ocean as deep and wide and essential as knowledge itself.

The Flattenened Ocean first appeared as a 5-minute audio episode on World Ocean Radio. Host Peter Neill is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean. Online at
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