Swirling away
Flotsametrics and the Floating World: How One Man's Obsession With Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionized Ocean Science
by Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano
Smithsonian, 304 pages

If you fall into the ocean wearing Nike Airs, the only thing rescuers will find is your feet; they'll likely surface somewhere, once inevitably freed from your legs — perhaps along the oceanic garbage patch spanning from British Columbia to Baja, perhaps on one of Australia's satellite islands, perhaps still floating in that wide Sargasso Sea. In any case, it turns out that the gas injected into the shoes' soles makes them float bottoms-up, shielding their soft leather tops (and soft human contents) from both sun and scavenging birds.

This was not, of course, an intentional feature of the shoes, but still, it's turned out to be important: It was, in fact, a remarkably durable flotilla of stray oceanfaring Nikes that led oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer to the work for which he is best known, and that's his collaboration with partner Jim Ingraham to chart the sea's dynamic system of eddies and gyres by tracking the man-made castoffs and castaways afloat on it, from shoes to rubber ducks to teetotaler sermons.

Flotsametrics and the Floating World, written by Ebbesmeyer with help from journalist Eric Scigliano, is the biography of a new offshoot of science; "flotsametrics" means, essentially, the application of quantitative measurement to floating trash. By tracking the effects of oceanic forces on, say, a heave-ho'd shipment of mateless hockey gloves, one can come to understand the sea currents themselves, and thus learn to hear their "music."

Along with Ingraham, Ebbesmeyer used unlikely field data from errant shoes and ducks to help model the network of interlocked circling currents that determine the path of everything without a rudder — including the stray Japanese boats that found their way to Hawaii long before European explorers, and perhaps even before the Polynesians themselves.

The book's start is a bit rocky, veering much into stray biographical details about Ebbesmeyer's career and family troubles, but eventually finds its way to the open sea, where Ebbesmeyer is obviously much more comfortable. Along with its lucid explanations and accounts of scientific discovery, much of the book consists of a charismatic collection of random facts, anecdotes and rampant speculations related to sea junk: for example, the dangers of "nurdles" (tiny bits of plastic that slowly release toxins while within sea creatures' bodies); the source of "East River whitefish" (slang for shoreline condoms); and the surplus weight it takes to permanently sink a human body (12 pounds, apparently); not to mention the story of an adventurer in Baja, Mexico, who was sidetracked by gallons and gallons of washed-up liquor, only to be saved by a message in a bottle proselytizing about the evils of alcohol.

Well, I suppose it's not surprising that a book about wide-ranging flotsam might range similarly wide.