Reel Waves

These are the files open on my computer screen: a PDF of Anand Pandian’s Reel World, a digital video of the 2011 Japan tsunami, and a Word document filling up with notes on fieldwork I am right this minute conducting at a “wave lab” at Oregon State University. Here at this laboratory, scientists generate scaled down “tsunamis” in a 300,000-gallon, swimming pool-sized basin of water, hoping to understand real-world wave propagation and inundation. I watch as a small video crew gathers footage for a short web documentary about this research center. They shuttle lights around this airplane-hangar-sized facility, setting themselves up to film the half-meter waves speeding across the wave tank. They zoom in on the mechanical paddles that generate waves, paddles set in motion by a person at a computer in a control room perched above the “shore” side of the basin. As this person looks down out of a small window, he reminds me of nothing so much as a movie projectionist peeking out from his booth. The scientists on the lab floor communicate with him via walkie-talkies, asking him to “run some waves.” He clicks a computer mouse to send an impulse to be transduced into a water wave.

When a member of the visiting film crew is given control of the walkie-talkie, she shifts the jargon: “roll ‘em!” I can’t help but think, now, of these artificially generated water waves as 3D movies, movies in a material—water—that, like that once-upon-a-time illuminated celluloid, has its own affordances and resistances. The coincidence between real waves and reel waves makes me look back down at my computer screen. I scroll through Pandian’s manuscript for prompts about what he names as “image and sensation, rhythm and tempo, structures of anticipation and displacement” (15), all phenomena that apply as well to waves as they do to film.

I land on Pandian’s chapter on time. He shares Bergson’s skepticism about time understood as a steady, linear unrolling. He favors instead a “time of emergent and transformative potential” (141). Though I would quibble with the implication that “potential” is an immanent ontological feature of the world rather than a situated cultural value (see Taussig, Hoeyer, and Helmreich 2013), I agree that linear notions of time need to be queried—including, possibly, here at the wave laboratory, where waves are engineered, mostly, to hold some things linear so others might be revealed. I press pause on the Japanese tsunami video, which I have been using as a point of comparison with the lab waves. Though the video is frozen, I know that its narrative unfolds with a brutal linearity, primarily since its outcome is known—though, skimming Pandian’s thoughts on time, it occurs to me that the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima did indeed summon time as a terrible “emergent and transformative potential.” Scientific laboratories hope to unfurl time differently than this, more deterministically, less improvisatorially.

And, yet, I am beginning to suspect that all is not linear reason here in the lab. There is something unusual, hidden from the untrained eye, about “time” as it exists in the scale model wave tank. When wave scientists make a 1:100 scale model of a tsunami, space, I learn, scales down at a different rate than time. This is because the molecular structure of water and the force of gravity are not themselves miniaturized in such models. And so, modeling a 10-meter-tall tsunami by generating a lab wave that is 100 times smaller (10-centimeters tall) does not yield dynamics that unfold 100 times faster, as one might think. Rather, the temporal unfolding of such a wave will be described by the ratio



√gravitational acceleration x water depth


which accounts for those aspects of water that are not—and, mostly cannot be—scaled down. The ratio—proposed by nineteenth-century English hydrodynamicist William Froude—suggests that if one wants to watch a real-time film of a 1:100 scale model tsunami and have it “feel” anything like a “real world” event, it needs to be slowed down by 10, not 100 times. Hollywood filmmakers know this well and do such calculations whenever they destroy a scale model city with a wave of water, whenever they summon what Gregg Mitman (1999) might call reel nature. In the lab, reel time needs to be slowed down by the inverse of the square root of gravity times depth in order to give the impression of real time—which, recursively, is only available through such reel time (see Weston 2002 and Riles 2004 for more on “real time”).

So, if making waves and filming them is, perhaps, to quote Pandian, “participating in the creative process and potential of a larger universe beyond the human” (8), that beyondness may sometimes be wrestled back into sensorial access by media technique—even as that very wrestling immediately underscores the phenomenon’s very otherness to everyday human experience.

Viewers of artificial waves, of time-corrected video of such waves, and of footage of real-world tsunamis often gather their sensibilities about how to compare these phenomena (as I do now as I restart the tsunami video) through experiences across screens—cinematic, computer, and documentary. They develop what Cristina Grasseni calls “skilled vision,” a hybrid viewing that permits them to see in physical objects those features that might be modulated by social action (Grasseni’s examples are from the biological world, having to do with how breeders learn to see different potentials in the cattle they domesticate). Pandian writes, “Vectors of experience…undo the very distinction between subjects and objects of human action” (272). That is certainly the case here in the wave lab. The vector of experience into which I am being initiated as I begin to see a slice of the world through a mathematical formula makes me see these waves differently. I am able newly to ask what these waves are. Are they autonomous agents, subject to human action? Are they humanly made artifacts, objects of human action? Both? The scientists around me suddenly strike me now as science fiction aliens able to see in two temporalities at the same “time,” a kind of skilled vision that permits them to see the waves as hybrids, natural and artificial.

Some of this is about speed as a sensation, “not sheer velocity as such but the impression of shifting from one velocity into another” (222)—where such impressions, for wave scientists, require not simply tuning for “exaggerated speed and slow-motion torpor” (226), but, back to the equation above, knowing how to move skillfully through exponential, not linear, time. If ethnography is, as Pandian suggests, “less a matter of immersion in a fluid medium, to use the aqueous metaphor associated most often with anthropological fieldwork, than a gamble on encounters with possible forms,” that gamble, here in the wave lab, requires managing ratios of cinematic, mathematical, and experiential time to understand the forms that waves, normal and disastrous both, take. When I again pause the video of the tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan in 2011 so I can watch a simulation in the wave tank, I realize that all this juggling of time, motion, and materials across screens is something like what we see in Pandian’s account of a key segment of the gangster film thriller Billa (Vardhan 2007), in which he counterposes a temporally shuffled scene in the film (the protagonist having “waves of recollection and anticipation wash over her experience of a present moment” [142]) with a narrative of the making of the scene (139-140). Shuffling time, motion, and materials across screens and media is how I am working ethnographically, too, and how my scientific colleagues here at the wave tank work, as they seek to understand and avert disaster through their own practices of creation—mediated, mathematical, and, in their own way, cinematic.



Grasseni, C. 2014.  “Skilled Vision: An Apprenticeship in Breeding Aesthetics.” Social Anthropology 12: 41-55.

Mitman, G. 1999. Reel Nature: America’s Romance with Wildlife on Film. Harvard University Press.

Riles, A.  2004. “Real Time: Unwinding Technocratic and Anthropological Knowledge.” American Ethnologist 31: 392–405.

Taussig, K.-S., K. Hoeyer, and S. Helmreich.  2013. “The Anthropology of Potentiality in Biomedicine: An Introduction.” Current Anthropology 54, Supplement 7: 3-14.

Vardhan, V., director. 2007.  Billa. Chennai: Ananda Picture Circuit.

Weston, K. 2002. Gender in Real Time: Power and Transience in a Visual Age. New York: Routledge.


Stefan Helmreich is Professor of Anthropology at MIT. His latest book is Sounding the Limits of Life: Essays in the Anthropology of Biology and Beyond (Princeton University Press, 2016).

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