Owen Phillips' career has been marked by turbulence.
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.
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.
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."