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    The Glory Days When Ocean Science Was Still Done with Notes Sealed in Old Booze Bottles

    Written by

    Michael Byrne


    Image: WikiCommons

    Between 1956 and 1972, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution named Dean Bumpus dumped some 300,000 glass bottles into the Atlantic Ocean. Marked with the words “break this bottle,” each one contained a postcard directing the bottle’s finder to note the time and place the bottle was found and drop the card in the mail. In return, the finder would receive a reward: a single 50 cent piece. It’s estimated that about 10 percent of Bumpus’ bottles were actually found and returned.

    The goal was to study ocean currents. At the time of Bumpus’ study, there were no satellites (at least of the sort useful for tracking ocean currents) and there was no GPS. In lieu of that high technology, Bumpus went very low. He probably wasn’t expecting that in another couple of decades researchers be able to watch an entire planet’s worth of ocean currents in real time from space.

    On Jan. 20, Warren Joyce, a researcher studying grey seals on Nova Scotia’s Sable Island, found one of the bottles, dating back to April of 1956. It had travelled only (only?) about 300 miles from where it was initially released nearly 50 years ago. According to the Associated Press, Woods Hole will be keeping its end of the bargain and Joyce is 50 cents the richer. Bumpus himself passed away in 2002.

    via Woods Hole

    A piece on the Woods Hole website recalls a memo Bumpus sent in 1959, soliciting materials for his project: "All hands are respectfully requested (until further notice) to bring their dead soldiers to the lab and deposit them in the box just inside the gate. Whiskey, rum, beer, wine or champagne bottles will be used to make drift bottles. Any clean bottles—8 oz to one quart in size will be gratefully received. Bottoms Up!"

    It’s an interesting case of “old” science coming back from the dead, and there’s probably a lesson here in just how fast what we consider basic technology is accelerating. After all, Bumpus only stopped with the bottle research in the mid-‘70s, which is something to think about: a researcher armed with only the most primitive (and frugal) tools in the face of a natural system as immense as Earth's oceans. The bottle attempt feels even somehow brave, or at least if feels like the sort of idiosyncrasy I wish we heard more about in research.