Andy Stern of Smartfin
Andy's Bio: Recently retired from his neurology practice and position as Associate Professor at The University of Rochester, Andy now devotes himself fully to raising awareness around our environment. Andy is a Zen Buddhist practitioner and author of numerous essays on a range of topics including the environment, memory, and the nature of knowing, mostly from a Zen perspective. He is the founder of Smartfin, an initiative of the arts-based environmental nonprofit Lost Bird (of which he is executive director). Discovering a need in the scientific community for near-shore ocean data to better understand the effects of climate change on coastal systems, Andy began imagining a data-collecting device deployed on surfboards that essentially turns surfers into citizen scientists. After enlisting the help of San Diego-based engineers, the Smartfin took shape and is currently being tested by researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
Feeling groovy? If you want to listen to music while you read, simply click play, enjoy this tune handpicked just for you by Andy, and read on »
be-7: Is it true that the inspiration behind Smartfin came about from a single conversation?
Andy: I was speaking with an oceanographer and he suggested I reach out to surfers, as they are intimately connected with the ocean. Then, I learned that while deep ocean data was available (if still inadequate), there was no data from the near-shore ocean available for researchers. Satellites can’t spatially resolve the narrow near-shore. Deep-ocean buoys are not deployed there and it's a rough area for equipment that may work well in deeper, calmer waters. So there was a real data gap in the area where most of us live and interact with the ocean.
be-7: It's amazing to me how little of our Earth's oceans have been explored, something like less than 5%... this data collection is going to be invaluably helpful in filling in the well of unknown information. Where do you see Smartfin going?
Andy: My dream is to have Smartfin in every surf spot in the world, eventually… One new idea is to tag sharks and dolphins with Smartfin technology and then obtain the data from wherever they go (this may not be that far in the future). The more usages the better—SUPs, sailboats, buoys, scuba gear, etc. may someday be applications for Smartfin technology.
be-7: Andy, I have to get slightly off track here... I have had the pleasure of spending some time with you and you seem to have a lot of fun. Does the happiness and fun you exude have something to do with your life's work?
Andy: Five years ago, I had a profound moment in which, suddenly, I knew exactly why I was here on Earth (and I am not generally a voo-doo type of guy!). I realized my work was to talk about the threats to global human health from climate change in ways that might contribute to meaningful mitigation. Each morning since, when I get out of bed and put my feet on the floor, I know without any doubt, in which direction to walk. I believe that the ONLY way to make a contribution to the world is by living your calling and because I now know my calling, I feel like a very, very lucky man!
be-7: Tell us about the moment when you "knew".
Andy: While reading Eaarth by Bill McKibben, I turned the last page and said, "I know why I’m here on Earth, to raise awareness about what’s happening to the environment.”
For me it’s not about how many fins are out there. The real guts of it is how much awareness can be associated with the distribution of these fins. People are just not aware of the central place of the oceans and the fragile nature of the environment. The data is the easy part, it's automatic. But, the awareness is much more challenging. My purpose is to deeply change individuals' relationship to the planet through Smartfin and through art with other Lost Bird initiatives—to trigger an awareness that we are in this together, that the surfer is not just an isolated being having fun, but is truly intimately connected to the global community as we all share the ocean.
be-7: I hear you talk a lot about climate change, can you share some of your insights with us?
Andy: Here is what this little Jewish neurologist and visionary from New York thinks... First, climate change is the issue of our time. It will cause unprecedented human suffering worldwide. Climate change and pollution are changing ocean chemistry and making the sea more acidic, which is deteriorating ocean health and killing marine life. To mount any meaningful response to the threat of climate change two things must happen:
- First, we must leave fossil fuels in the ground. So far not a single country worldwide has even mentioned doing this.
- Second, we must evolve or transform our culture from one more of “me,” of domination, and of large scale, to one of less, of community, and of smaller scale. I am really talking here about a spiritual transformation.
The fact that we are conducting business as usual as though the climate-change freight train were not just around the bend is not good. There is something sacred about the ocean and how it responds to the increased heat content and increased concentration of CO2 will essentially determine the future of mankind.
The hope for Smartfin is that it will introduce a new vocabulary into climate-change dialogue, a way of talking about it that is neither boring nor gloomy.
be-7: Not being a surfer yourself, what has it been like working in this community?
Andy: I am interacting with ocean scientists and surfers for the first time in my life. Their passion for a healthy ocean is inspiring. We don’t need to recruit surfers—they come to us. I am now getting emails every week from surfers and scientists asking for Smartfins. After The Today Show, we got almost 600 requests for Smartfins from all over the world—from surfers and from scientists. Oh my gosh! Dream come true. Surfers are invited to be citizen scientists, but I would like to also reach out to the non-surfing general public. I'm a neurologist. The only thing I am an expert in is medical neurology... but now I have discussed climate change at the White House, talked to groups of congressmen and senators, and have talked to many different environmental groups. Smartfin brought us all together.
be-7: Have your new cronies been trying to get you out on a surfboard, or are you still a member of the non-surfing general public?
Andy: All the fucking time. I have now been out three times and can proudly say that in addition to swallowing gallons of salt water, and being sick for a day after, I have stood up on the damn thing for one nanosecond! But this is only the beginning of my surf career, I am sure.
be-7: Let's take a technical moment to explain how the Smartfin works...
Andy: It's equipped with a GPS unit, a nine-axis motion tracker (which lets it measure wave characteristics), and a Bluetooth module. It automatically "wakes up" and starts recording when movement is detected, and its built-in battery can be recharged by detaching the fin and placing it on a Qi wireless charging pad. The fin itself has no physical controls. When the surfer is done riding the waves, the data (pH, salinity, temperature, location, and waves) is uploaded to servers through a smartphone app. We will continue developing the sensor technology forever and may someday also have oxygen, chlorophyll, and other readings, but this is what we measure now. It can also tell surfers where to find the best waves!
The potential uses are many, but, in addition, the scientists believe that once the data sets are available, that new uses will evolve. For this moment, the applications focus on fish and shellfish yields that are in decline, algal blooms that poison drinking water and marine life, changes in the conditions near desalinization and power plants that threaten coastal ecosystem health, coral reef bleaching and declining coral ecosystem health, and studying how waves carry wind energy. Smartfin asks surfers to be citizen scientists, to have an awareness that they’re not simply relating to the ocean as the coolest playground on Earth. Which it is! But it’s also part of something bigger than that. It’s a critical part of the Earth’s environmental systems.
be-7: I would imagine people want to know how they can get a Smartfin for their boards or how they can get involved. Can you give us that information?
Andy: The most common question most environmental leaders get is, "What can I do?" Well, for the surfer, by riding a Smartfin and stepping up as a citizen scientist, they will be contributing while at the same time doing what they love! You must be a Surfrider Foundation chapter member because Smartfins will primarily be distributed to those communities. Then, any scientist, worldwide, who wants one, gets one (or 10 or 20) for free—whatever is useful to further scientific understanding. The engineering and production of a Smartfin costs about $200 per fin. However, our goal is to make them available to researchers and Surfrider Foundation citizen scientists around the world at little to no cost at all. We welcome all donations to Smartfin to help underwrite some of these expenses!
be-7: In be-7 tradition, I must ask... What did this "Jewish neurologist and visionary from New York" eat for breakfast this morning?
Andy: I don’t usually eat breakfast or lunch. For decades as a neurologist, I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while talking on the phone between patients even though my children thought I was too old for that.
be-7: I promised to resist using flattery to close out this interview, so instead, can you leave us with a bit of wisdom? Perhaps a window into the cultural evolution you imagine? Or, what you would say to someone who wants to separate spirituality and humanity from science and technology?
Andy: Any truly meaningful response to the threat of climate change requires a transformation of our culture from valuing more to less, prioritizing the community over the individual, and striving for meaning rather than running from it. Following the above framework, it seems to me that while technological advances will be essential, the foundation of a real response will draw from the humanities rather than the sciences. I even wonder if those who believe that technology will solve the problem and be the answer, are themselves Climate Change Deniers!
Meet Dr. Andy Stern (and check out his six-pack abs) on this short video: