Windsurfing is not the usual way to find a science career, but for Oceanographer Emmanuel Boss, it was on a windsurfer in the Mediterranean that he first found the inspiration to study the deep blue sea. There, he says, standing on a board in the waves off the Israeli coast, he liked to look at the way the light bounced off the surface of the water. “I felt better on water than on land,” he recalls. Because he knew from the age of fifteen that he wanted to be an oceanographer, he studied oceanography in science books he found at bookstores and at libraries, with a plan to be the next Jacques Cousteau. School science didn’t interest him, he remembers, because “it was mostly about verification” rather than discovery. That is, instead of letting kids use science to explore the world around them, teachers expected forty kids in one room to verify known facts. “It’s a stupid way to teach science,” Boss says.
Nowadays, as a Professor of Oceanography at the University of Maine, Boss studies the way that light travels through or bounces off ocean water. More specifically, he uses sophisticated sensors, some of which he helped design himself, to learn what the passage of light through water, or the reflection of light off its surface, can tell us about the materials and organisms living in that water. He uses the physical principles of attenuation (also known as extinction), absorption, and scattering to determine the amount of living matter suspended in the water of an ocean, or the type of organisms, or their distribution. As light passes through water, it loses intensity more quickly if the water it passes through contains more living organisms, such as phytoplankton.
Boss’s current projects include ecosystem dynamics, using satellites to determine how much sunlight bounces back from the ocean, looking at intensity and color to see how much material is in the oceans over time, examining algae blooms and their causes, and exploring the relationship between phytoplankton populations and springtime light. Working with small companies, he has even helped design instruments that enable oceanographers to sense and record the properties of light passing through ocean water. Most recently, he reports, Boss has found himself getting into ocean acoustics, studying the way sound behaves in water.
In his work, Professor Boss uses math principles that range from elementary (algebra and trigonometry) to advanced (integro-differential equations). He relies on ratios of surface area to volume to determine the impact of differently-sized creatures or objects on various measurable optical characteristics of the water. With trigonometry, he determines the angle at which solar waves reach the surface of the ocean, which in turn determines how much that light spreads. Using sophisticated mathematical methods like Mie and T-matrix, Boss determines the likely effect of differently shaped organisms and sedimentary particles on light. These theoretical results are then used to interpret in-water observations.
Professor Boss’s life, spent traveling the world to learn more about its oceans, is a long way from his youthful days as a competitive sailor in Israel. By combining his intense curiosity about the oceans, his mathematical skill, and his wanderlust, Boss has created the life he has always wanted: traveling the world to get wet in the search for knowledge about the world’s oceans.