In case we happened on an unexpected eddy, Bower had kept one of her 12 floats in reserve, and on our last day at sea, we found one, an Irminger Ring, or so the satellite maps on Bower’s computer alleged. The discovery was anticlimactic. The seas had calmed. Yet below us, if the satellite data was to be believed, there raged a watery storm. We human beings are visual creatures, and yet to comprehend invisible if observable phenomena—mesoscale eddies, rising CO2 levels measured in parts per billion, rising sea levels measured in millimeters, the waves through which cellphones and satellites communicate, electrons, dark matter, quarks—we must learn to perceive the world the way Amy Bower does, obliquely, with the help of fallible instruments and imperfect knowledge.
Out there on the fantail of the Knorr, on the last day of our voyage, trying in vain to detect some trace of the watery storm below, I couldn’t help but feel a bit envious of the naturalists of centuries past, those scientific voyeurs who, with microscopes and telescopes, made discoveries everywhere they looked, perceiving ecosystems in drops of water, cosmologies in the dying rays of intergalactic light.
Bower’s 12 yellow floats are just a small part of a global fleet. Oceanographers have seeded the oceans with more than 3,000 of these underwater sensors. Profiling floats can’t descend into that third dimension any farther than 6,500 feet, however. And they can’t ascend into certain Arctic latitudes, where sea ice makes it impossible for them to communicate via satellite. The data they gather won’t banish darkness from the deep.
Our late Irminger Ring spotting turned out to be a false alarm. Someone at Woods Hole had sent Bower an out-of-date map. By the time we cast her float overboard, the underwater storm had already passed. Such failures are to be expected, especially at sea. Back at Woods Hole, Bower keeps taped to her office door a slip of paper bearing a typewritten motto: “Theory is when you know everything but nothing works. Experiment is when everything works but you know nothing. Most of the time nothing works and no one knows why.” Nevertheless, all but one of the floats on Bower’s mooring did eventually launch. And slowly, by dint of great effort and expense, the information they gather will help us catch at least a glimpse of the ocean’s fourth and darkest dimension—that is, of the world to come.single page
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