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uni'wissen 02(4)-2011_ENG

“Spun glass” in the darkness of the sea: Naturalist William Beebe observed exotic creatures from his bathysphere. Photo: mirpic/Fotalia A swarm of jellyfish darts by. They whirl around like thin “spun glass,” like a “bunch of lil- ies of the valley turned inside out,” notes William Beebe – quickly, before he forgets the details he spies through the window of his bathysphere. Then a school of 20 or 30 fish swims by the pane of glass; small, lean fish that open and close their big mouths. Are they lantern fish? The American naturalist isn’t certain. In the artificial light of his lamps the familiar colors seem illusive, the well- known forms unreal. He is at a loss for words to describe the hundreds of nuances between light and dark, large and small, pointy and round, that bombard his eyes in the ocean’s depths. In 1934 William Beebe sets a record: He dives 923 meters into the depths of the Atlantic off the coast of Bermuda in a spherical vessel of one- and-a-half meters in diameter. The naturalist ex- periences the deep-sea world at closer range than any man before him – and still not close enough, says Natascha Adamowsky, professor of media and cultural studies at the University of Freiburg. For her current project she is studying depictions of the sea as a miracle and a mystery from the end of the 19th to the beginning of the 20th century: How did film directors portray the exotic creatures of the deep seas? What does Jules Verne’s description of a battle between ­humans and giant octopuses in his novel Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea tell us about modernist culture? And why did the sea hold such a fascination for people – not just scientists and artists but ordinary people, who came in droves to see exhibitions featuring things like sea horses preserved in alcohol? The Darkness of the Sea as a Sign of Human Limitations Among other things, Adamowsky is analyzing drawings of mussels and corals from textbooks, artistic representations that depict an exotic deep-sea dream world, underwater films, novels, and accounts of expeditions – like Half Mile Down, the book Beebe wrote about his trip into the depths. “The naturalist discovered a lot of things on his expeditions, but he was never able to experience what it really looks like down there,” says Adamowsky. “The eternal darkness of the deep sea is not made for the human eye. In order to see anything, we have to make light.” But there are fishes, and then there are fishes: Fish look different in artificial light than they do in the eternal darkness of their habitat. The prob- lem remains even today. Even the most ad- vanced equipment cannot reveal what the crea- tures do in the dark. Beebe, for instance, drifted around like an air bubble in a world in which there are no air bubbles: What sounds reached his ears were only faint and distorted; the sea creatures sped by his vessel so fast he could hardly make them out – and this represented the height of modern technology. His account of the expedition reveals the frustration of a scientist who had reached his limits: “Our vocabularies are pauperized, and our minds drugged,” wrote the naturalist. Beebe’s deep-sea expeditions il- lustrate clearly that success and failure are two sides of the same coin. The media and cultural scientist finds these accounts interesting for two reasons: First, they illustrate the fact that there will always be a gap between the object and the researcher – a para- digm for the basic dilemma of science: “Every- thing we know about the sea comes from the me- dia and machines. They only provide us with snapshots, snippets, data. The world itself will always remain inaccessible,” explains Ada­ mowsky. If one wants to understand the history of the miracle of the sea, one must also consider how the information was gathered and the way in which it was transmitted to the public. In the mid 19th century, for example, the aquarium became a popular medium. Museums in Germany, France, England, and the USA presented the miracles of the deep sea behind panes of glass. The enormous tanks had glass walls and trans- parent tops. “The people felt like they were really strolling around with the exotic creatures on the “Everything we know about the sea comes from the media and machines. They only provide us with snapshots, snippets, data. The world itself will always remain inaccessible for us” 29uni'wissen 04