The Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 30, 1998
Mar. 30 1998
VOL. 27, NO. 28


Owens Phillips Makes Waves

Tribute: Pioneer in geophysical fluid mechanics will be honored here at international meeting

Emil Venere and
Phil Sneiderman
News and Information

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Owen Phillips' career has been marked by turbulence.

No, really.

He is a pioneer in research dealing with geophysical fluid mechanics, which includes the study of turbulence in the ocean and atmosphere. It may sound terribly academic, but fluid mechanics is a field that lies at the heart of crucial environmental processes such as the vital recycling of oxygen and carbon dioxide, and the feeding methods used by tiny marine organisms essential for life in the oceans.

"I got into oceanography more or less by accident, looking back on it," says Owen Phillips, a Decker Professor of Science and Engineering. Phillips is renowned for his system to predict and describe the shapes of giant ocean waves, knowledge that is essential in designing ships.

Phillips says that his scientific calling and successes have been influenced by chance and a series of "critical accidents."

"I got into oceanography more or less by accident, looking back on it," says Phillips, an engineer and scientist who probes the complex physics of fluids in motion. He is world famous for devising a system to predict and describe the shapes of giant ocean waves, knowledge that is essential for designing ships and drilling platforms capable of withstanding the destructive walls of water.

Phillips was a key figure in forming the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences in 1967. He will be honored this week during an international conference on environmental fluid mechanics at Johns Hopkins.

"I don't know if honor is the right word," jokes Phillips, 67, a Decker Professor of Science and Engineering. "They'll probably give me a hard time."

The three-day conference, which begins Thursday and includes a session Friday morning dedicated to Phillips' work, has attracted an unusually distinguished lineup of speakers who rarely appear together at one event, organizers said.

"Because we are celebrating Owen Phillips, and because he has such high stature, these speakers include some of the founders of the field of fluid mechanics and some of his former students," said Charles Meneveau, a professor of mechanical engineering and a co-chair of the conference. "We approached 15 speakers from outside Hopkins and two from the Hopkins faculty, and all were delighted to participate. That fact is a tribute to Owen Phillips."

Added Haydee Salmun, an associate research scientist in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering and another co-chair: "We didn't have to ask twice. We are very pleased to see all the outstanding scientists and engineers coming to participate in the conference."

Meneveau said Phillips' 1966 book, The Dynamics of the Upper Ocean, has become a standard reference volume for students trying to understand ocean turbulence and waves.

"His work was very fundamental to the general area of environmental fluid mechanics. It has had profound impact in cutting across traditional disciplines," said Marc Parlange, a professor of geography and environmental engineering and the third co-chair of the event. "A lot of his former students, who are now distinguished researchers worldwide, are coming to the conference, and at least two will be speakers."

Phillips plans to retire from teaching in July but will continue his research, which began in the 1950s after a chance encounter with another scientist.

He was finishing his doctorate at Cambridge University in 1955, studying how wind causes the skin of aircraft to flutter, which can make airplanes more difficult to control.

"I heard a seminar by a chap called Fritz Ursell, talking on the generation of waves by wind on the ocean, which he said was a classic unsolved problem," recalls Phillips, a native Australian.

Because the research was similar to his own work, Phillips was confident that he could do well in that field.

"And it was much more interesting than what I was doing," he says.

He penned his first scientific paper in the field in 1957, the same year he joined the Johns Hopkins faculty as an assistant professor of mechanical engineering. Phillips specifically chose Hopkins because it possessed several specialists in turbulence, among them Stanley Corrsin and Leslie Kovasznay.

"I already knew a bit about turbulence, and that's what I thought my future was going to be," he says. "But I couldn't make a living on turbulence alone because it's a very difficult subject; you get one good idea in five years."

Phillips decided to branch out, studying ocean waves and other important facets of fluid mechanics. In addition to the hundred or so papers he's written, Phillips has authored several books. His most recent book, Flow and Reactions in Permeable Rocks, published in 1991, set out to unify the physics and chemistry of certain geological processes.

His work in fluid mechanics has applied to regions as far-flung as the oceans, the Earth's crust and the atmosphere. During the 1960s he briefly dabbled in research that yielded insights into a futuristic marine propulsion system, called magneto hydrodynamic propulsion, which would use no propellers to silently thrust ships through the water.

"That was just a one-shot deal," says Phillips. "I have a fairly short attention span. I like to work in a field for a while, and then other people join in, and the competition gets too hot. If something gets interesting and exciting, a lot of bright young people jump into it. Then, frankly it's hard to keep up."

During the early 1990s, Phillips made a splash in the popular media with research dealing with giant ocean waves, 10-story upheavals of water that, unlike tidal waves, are not caused by earthquakes.

While participating in field research to study waves off the coast of Virginia, he made a surprising discovery: By applying a statistical method that is rarely used to analyze waves, he could use conditions in the ocean to actually predict the sizes of giant waves.

Moreover, his work yielded new information about the shapes of the huge waves, important details that are needed to design ship hulls and offshore drilling platforms that can better withstand the rare ocean surges.

As Phillips tells it, luck has played an important role in his work, as in all science. For example, shortly before his research that led to the giant-wave findings, there was a tremendous storm that blew away nearly all the buoys put in place to gather information.

"But one buoy stayed there and faithfully recorded the data the whole time," he says.

The storm provided rare data on giant waves, which were not the original focus of the research, per se. But the luck factor didn't stop there. Phillips thought that there seemed to be some similarities between the data he was seeing and a statistical method called "auto-correlation function." So he decided to use the statistical method to analyze the storm data.

Applying an "auto-correlation function" to routine measurements from monitoring buoys, Phillips predicts the shapes and characteristics of giant ocean waves.

To his complete surprise, when the shapes of the highest waves recorded by buoys and aircraft were compared to the wave auto-correlation functions for the whole storm, they turned out to be identical. The implication of that finding was that scientists would no longer have to catch a giant wave in action, which is a difficult task. Now, the shapes and characteristics of such waves could be predicted with very ordinary, routine measurements from monitoring buoys.

"That was the really astonishing thing," he says. "That's why I really think you have to be lucky. In doing science, everybody has a number of strokes of luck, and some people miss them. If you are any good, you really see that an opportunity is given to you and you grab it.

"Now, the luck brings it along, but you have to have the training and the background and the awareness to take advantage of it."

Phillips To Be Honored By Fellow Scholars In Fluid Mechanics

A distinguished international lineup of scholars in fluid mechanics will gather at Hopkins this week to discuss their research and pay tribute to Hopkins scientist Owen Phillips, a widely respected leader in the field and a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

About 200 researchers and students from as far as Russia, China, Australia and Israel are expected to attend the Johns Hopkins Conference in Environmental Fluid Mechanics, which kicks off Thursday morning in Shriver Hall and continues through early Saturday afternoon.

Participants will discuss topics such as the interaction of wind and waves and the behavior of air as it moves through trees.

Speakers will include many renowned researchers who helped establish the science of fluid mechanics and others who are working on the cutting edge to advance this challenging field.

"The goal of fluid mechanics is to understand and to be able to predict the motion of fluids such as air and water," said Charles Meneveau, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and a co-chair of the conference. "Its areas of study range from atmospheric flows and ocean currents to the interaction between oceans and air, such as how waves spray droplets and create bubbles."

In environmental research, the principles of fluid mechanics help scientists make predictions about climate, weather, ocean circulation and the movement of pollutants through air, soil and bodies of water.

"Hopkins has had a long and proud tradition of excellence in fluid mechanics research," said Marc Parlange, a professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering and a co-chair of the conference.

To continue this tradition and draw upon the expertise of faculty members from a broad range of scientific disciplines, Hopkins in 1996 set up its Center for Environmental and Applied Fluid Mechanics. The center includes faculty and students from the departments of Biomedical Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Civil Engineering, Earth and Planetary Sciences, Geography and Environmental Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and Physics and Astronomy, and from the Applied Physics Laboratory.

This week's conference will showcase Hopkins as a focal point for such research and will allow participants to pay tribute to Phillips, who has been a Hopkins faculty member for more than 40 years.

Phillips is an internationally acknowledged leader in fluid mechanics. Other top scientists in the field were eager to participate in this week's conference because of their respect for him, organizers said.

"I don't think we've had these distinguished scientists in the field all together at one conference at any other time that we can recall," said Haydee Salmun, an associate research scientist in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering and co-chair of the conference. Salmun earned her doctorate in oceanography as a student of Phillips'.

Among the international leaders in the field who will speak at the conference are a number of former Johns Hopkins doctoral students. They include J. Lumley, of Cornell University; M. L. Banner, of New South Wales, Australia; and H. J. S. Fernando, of Arizona State University.

Another distinguished speaker will be Sir James Lighthill of University College of London, who is considered one of the top applied mathematicians living today, conference organizers said.

Two Hopkins faculty members will also be among the speakers: Peter L. Olson, a professor of geophysics in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and Andrea Prosperetti, the Charles A. Miller Jr. Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering.

More than 80 fluid mechanics researchers will present displays and talk about their work during poster sessions scheduled for 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday in the Great Hall of Levering. The poster sessions will be open to visitors.

The schedule of speakers and other information about the conference is available on the Web at

Anyone wishing to attend any of the conference lectures should check in before each lecture at the registration table outside the Shriver Hall Auditorium to see if space is available.