Posts Tagged Open Access

Bo Hellström and copyright protection

I have at my desk an interesting and rare book: “The Israelites’ Crossing of the Red Sea”, by Professor B. Hellström, published in Stockholm in 1950. Bo Hellstrom was a professor of hydraulics in Stockholm, Sweden from 1914-1955. From Ian Larsen’s paper:

In 1923 he [B. Hellstrom] receives a grant to study wind driven seiches in lakes, a subject that he will follow on and off for a long time to come. In 1924 he suggest that it was a well timed wind-generated seiche that was to allow Moses and his tribe to cross the Red Sea and subsequently to drown Faraoh and his army. The reader of the Bible will see that Bo Hellstrom’s theory is well covered in the actual text. Hollywood on the other hand got it completely wrong as usual. (Larsen 2003)

A remarkable thing about this particular book is that it contains a hand-written dedication on the inner page by Hellstrom himself. “Professor A.E. Bretting, with best wishes for Christmas and the coming year, from Bo Hellstrom”. He touched the same page that I am touching! I like that.

The study of physical laws underlying the parting of the Red Sea has a long history. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus in 94 AD urged people not to wonder if the strange narration in Exodus 14 “happened of its own accord”. But as any parent knows, as soon as you tell kids not to do something, they go ahead and do it! Generations of scientists have ignored Josephus’ advice, preferring to follow Psalm 111:2 instead. Samuel Bartlett in 1879 suggested that Moses might have taken advantage of wind-lowered water levels, crossing on a shallow ford southeast of modern Suez. Sir Alexander Tulloch actually observed a wind setdown event on Lake Manzala, which led him to conclude in 1896 that the famous passage took place between the Great Bitter Lake and Lake Timsah.

Professor Hellstrom brought the science of hydraulics to bear on the Exodus problem in 1924. In his lab he constructed a wind tunnel over a trough containing water, roughly modeling the topography of the northern reaches of the Gulf of Suez. He used an underwater sill to provide a dry crossing with water on both sides at Serapeum, the same site suggested by Tulloch. His book shows maps and detailed diagrams and photos of the water-level gauges that he built on the side of his wave tank to measure the water surface accurately. Bo Hellstrom was quite the experimentalist! His diagrams look a lot like mine.

Thus, by means of this laboratory experiment, which admittedly is only approximate, proof was obtained of the fact that it may very well be conceived that the wind uncovered the bottom of the Red Sea at Serapeum. It was possible by means of these experiments and exhaustive theoretical investigations to establish the natural laws which prevail. (Hellström 1950, p. 21)

So I have this fascinating book in my hands, and I would like to share Hellström’s scholarship with the rest of the world. As Dr. Frank J. Little, Jr. has stated, “Our purpose is to return Hellstrom’s Exodus hypothesis to the scientific community, plus quantify and update it in light of newly synthesized evidence.” How can I do that? Bartlett’s book is available through Google Books, and anyone can read it on-line. I had to get Hellstrom’s book through an Interlibrary Loan with California State University at Fresno. That’s a big difference in terms of ease of access! People will find and read Samuel Bartlett quicker and more often than Bo Hellstrom.

Samuel Bartlett died in 1898. His work is now in the public domain, and this is why Google can legally digitize his book and make it available on-line. Bo Manne Hellstrom died in 1967. Sweden has a copyright term of 70 years after the author’s death, so his copyright will not expire until the fair year 2037. And until then, “The Israelites’ Crossing of the Red Sea” will languish in Interlibrary Loan Land. Ick.

If Hellstrom’s book suddenly became an overnight sensation, and if scads of people were clamoring for it and paying thousands of dollars to obtain one of the rare copies, then the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm would take notice and starting printing a new edition of the book. They would make lots of money and send royalties to Hellstrom’s heirs, wherever they are now. That’s why copyrights endure long after an author’s death, and the system works well for people like Mark Twain and Walt Disney.

Unfortunately, the copyright system is not serving B. Hellström very well. His book contains scholarly and historical interest, but with all due respect, “The Israelites’ Crossing of the Red Sea” will never be a best-seller like “Huckleberry Finn”. Nor does anyone expect that – scholars are valued for their intellectual contributions, not necessarily for their popularity with the general public. Bo Hellstrom’s work will remain locked up for another 26 years where only a few determined scholars will read it; unlike his predecessor Bartlett, who can be read by any high school student who enters the right search string into Google.

Professor Hellstrom would have benefited from Open Access. It would have increased his scholarly impact. We would still be reading his work and he would get all the credit. Too bad the Open Access movement came too late for him.

Special thanks to Professor Ian Larsen of the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm for supplying additional information on Bo Hellström. Larsen adds, “A E Bretting was professor in Hydraulic Engineering in Copenhagen and retired around 1958.” I would love to know how Hellstrom’s book made its way from Copenhagen to Cal State Fresno, but I have enough historical mysteries for one lifetime already!


Bartlett, Samuel Colcord, 1879. From Egypt to Palestine: through Sinai, the wilderness and the south country. Harper, New York, New York, USA.

Drews, Carl, and Weiqing Han, 2010. Dynamics of Wind Setdown at Suez and the Eastern Nile Delta. PLoS ONE, 5(8): e12481. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0012481

Drews, Carl, 2011. Could Wind Have Parted the Red Sea? Weatherwise, January-February 2011, 64, 30-35. doi:10.1080/00431672.2011.536122

Hellström, Bo, 1950. The Israelites’ Crossing of the Red Sea. The Institution of Hydraulics, The Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden. First published in the Swedish language in 1924.

Larsen, Ian, 2003. A La Recherce du Temps Perdu: The times of J Gust Richert and thereafter. Zentech Belgium, Brussels, Belgium.

Tulloch, Alexander Bruce, 1896. Passage of the Red Sea by the Israelites. Journal of the Transactions of the Victoria Institute (now Faith and Thought) 28, 267-280. The Victoria Institute, London, United Kingdom.

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What Open Access Does For Me

On August 30, 2010 I published a scientific paper in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE entitled “Dynamics of Wind Setdown at Suez and the Eastern Nile Delta”. This post is a follow-up to my earlier post of August 31, which focused on Open Access. So – what happened?

Plenty! My employer issued a press release on September 21, 2010, which is our standard practice for research that we think will have popular interest. There was extensive media coverage during that week, including segments by ABC News, Fox 31 KDVR in Denver, National Public Radio,, and the BBC. After working hard on this research for years as a graduate student, it was gratifying to receive the attention! The number of article views at PLoS ONE is now at 39,009. Our animation of Parting the Waters has been viewed 542,928 times on YouTube, and my verbal explanation there has been viewed 58,618 times.

What role did Open Access play in the publication of my research results?

1. Open Access is ideally suited to inter-disciplinary topics of popular interest.

Many scientific journals focus on a single area of science, and reject manuscripts that are judged to fall outside that discipline. Is my research: oceanography, meteorology, archaeology, history, coastal oceanography, biblical studies, numerical modeling, geology, or what? A limited access journal tends to exclude from its readership those scientists who do not subscribe to the journal, placing a barrier to experts outside the journal’s focus. That same barrier to readership also discourages interested amateurs who are willing to brave the paper’s scientific rigor and try to understand what it’s about. I recognized that the Exodus problem is highly inter-disciplinary, and this publication might spark great popular interest. I didn’t want to exclude anyone from reading the paper, even with a small download fee.

2. Open Access increases the number of article views.

PLoS ONE includes a number of useful metrics, including the number of article views. As noted in my previous post, I want lots of people to read my paper. Although I don’t have extensive metrics on article views between Open Access and limited access, my colleagues tell me that 39,009 views is a lot for a scientific paper! We think it would be hard to get those numbers with limited access. Unfortunately, I cannot re-run this publication experiment with a traditional journal and count up the views again.

But I can plot the article views on a daily basis and try to extract some meaning out of the graphs! Here the cumulative and daily views on a log scale (see figure at right):

Plots of article views on a daily basis.

Cumulative and daily article views.

Obviously the press release and subsequent media coverage had a huge effect on article readership. Over two weeks the number of article views zoomed up from 500 to over 35,000! Since the graph doesn’t shoot up until the press release, people must be reading the news first and then looking up my scientific paper. It is safe to say that the media coverage caused a jump in article views, not the other way around. Media coverage drives people to my research; Open Access lets them in the front door. 35,000 people became interested enough to look at the original paper, and indeed they could (with some repeat visitors). Open Access works together with media publicity to increase drastically the societal impact of scientific research.

3. Open Access assists helpful amateurs to educate the general public.

In comments and blog posts I have noticed about 1 in every 20 posts is from a knowledgeable person who is trying to educate the rest of the folks on the forum. Often they have posted a link to the original paper, with the remark that it’s open access. These knowledgeable people are “amateurs”; and I use that term in the sense that they love science! They take time to educate themselves, they read technical articles, and they provide helpful references for everyone else. They look up facts instead of just typing in something and hitting the Post button. They verify the details and correct mistaken assumptions. Helpful amateurs are very important in communicating science. Professional scientists cannot do it alone. I can make the amateurs’ job easier by providing open access to my scientific publications. I appreciate their valuable efforts.

Open Access increases my impact as a scholar. Scientific research is hard work! The societal impact makes it all worthwhile.

Weatherwise magazine

On a related note, I have just published an article in Weatherwise magazine as a follow-up to the earlier scientific paper. This magazine article “Could Wind Have Parted the Red Sea?” explains the parting of the sea to the general public. So if you don’t want to read about drag coefficients and Mellor-Yamada mixing, that’s where to go!

UCAR Policy

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of my employer. UCAR has adopted an Open Access Policy, and has implemented that policy by the creation of an institutional repository of scholarly works known as OpenSky.

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