How not to clean up the ocean

For those of you who have been follow Boyan Slat’s debacle — you know, the pretentious kid who claims to have figured out how to clean up ocean garbage — you should be reading Deep Sea News for all the Ocean Cleanup Schadenfreude. You might also learn a little physical oceanography, which is cool. I was startled in that article by the discussion of Stokes Drift, which I hadn’t heard of, but I know all about Stokes Shift, which made me wonder if they’d been discovered by the same guy. They were. Now I’m imagining a Victorian gentleman going around discovering scientific principles and giving them rhyming names. Did Stokes Thrift mean he gave cheap Stokes Gifts? Was Stokes Sift used to excavate Stokes Rift?

I’m punchy. I need a nap.

Anyway, I don’t know oceanography. What convinced me that this was a con was how young Mr Slat & Co. treated Dr Miriam Goldstein and Dr Kim Martini. Dismissing relevant expertise is a bad way to build a real initiative.

May their booms keep on breaking.


  1. Sili says

    It’s not the main issue, of course, and I may be wrong, but if the Netherlands resemble Denmark in this aspect too, then addressing anyone with titles is pretty unusual and old-fashioned. That is to say, the young whippersnapper may not have known any better than to use “Mrs”, thinking that was just the way the Americans did it. (Assuming of course he was quoted correctly.)

  2. numerobis says

    “, who are not engineers” is not considered the polite form of address anywhere.

  3. Chris Capoccia says

    Even if it hadn’t broken, it’s not the way to clean up plastic in the ocean. 90% of the plastic comes from 10 rivers. Unless you get those 10 rivers under control, it will always be like drinking out of a fire hose with a teaspoon

  4. says

    Also, has anyone tried to figure out how many boats, burning up how much fuel, they would need to clean up even half — the easier half — of the floating plastic?

  5. Sean Boyd says

    It’s the same Stokes as in the famous Stokes’ Theorem in calculus, which, in true mathematical fashion, Stokes had no role in developing. Stokes Drift, though, was Stokes actual work. No word on Stokes Sift or Stokes Rift. To not have named them after him, no doubt, would have left Stokes miffed.

    /ducks tomatoes, exits stage right

  6. wzrd1 says

    @4, it’s in the links PZ provided. The system is supposed to be passive, moving along by wind.
    Which the kid’s plans has always aligned with the ocean currents, rather than the usual chaotic mixture of random swirls and vortices that are what is always observed in nature.
    Because, Kelvin-Helmholtz instability isn’t a thing, nor is Richtmyer–Meshkov instability, nor is Rayleigh–Taylor instability, to name three common instabilities that can only average together to form a gyre (among other forces and instabilities).*
    What is amazing is that the damned thing stayed in any kind of configuration near what he desired and held together as long as it did. Even money, it repelled more garbage than it could manage to blunder into, due to scattering effects, as the good doctor mentioned in her article.
    I’m no hydrological engineer or oceanologist, but I would sure as hell hire a few before I even began thinking of any sort of plan and attempting to design a system myself. That would simply be setting myself up for failure in advance.

    *And those handful of instabilities are from memories of physics classes from nearly 40 years ago.

  7. says

    That’s SIR George Stokes to you. Best known for his groundbreaking work on the mechanism used in the world’s first steam-powered elevator, which would eventually become known as Stokes’ Lift.

    He was a true polymath, the likes of which we haven’t seen since. Shame about some of his later ventures, though. After his failed comedy career – mostly due to to the tedious and longwinded nature of Stokes’ riffs – he tried his hand at sports. But when he stepped up to the bat, well, Stokes whiffed.

    In fact, his string of highly publicized – and highly financialized – failures grew so long that to this day, someone with an incredible ability to convince people to pay them to keep trying new things is still said to be performing “Stokes’ Grift”.

    (I’llllll… uh… I’ll just see myself out.)

  8. leerudolph says

    “, who are not engineers” is not considered the polite form of address anywhere.

    I don’t know about “form of address”, but certainly in some circles it would be a high compliment…

  9. chrislawson says

    “Not engineers” is particularly egregious since Mr Slat, having dropped out of his engineering course before completion, is not an engineer either.

  10. says

    The only sensible solution is the GM sharks so that they eat plastic and poop ice cubes, thus solving all of the World’s major problem’s.*

    Trump, Brexit etc are merely humanity’s probs…..

  11. CJO says

    To be fair, based on actual, local knowledge of the operation in Alameda, I don’t think it’s a con, in the sense of purposefully deceiving for personal gain. I think Slat and his team were honestly deluded that it would work.

  12. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    “, who are not engineers” is not considered the polite form of address anywhere.

    I don’t know about “form of address”, but certainly in some circles it would be a high compliment…

    Circles of uniform density, no doubt.

  13. chrislawson says


    From my reading of financial cons, most are perpetrated by self-aware scammers but a surprisingly large number are by people who wanted to do something great but drifted into fraud as their methods failed and they needed more cash to keep their dream alive.