WHOI  WHOI People  

Program Profile

The GFD Program began in 1959 at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution with the aim of introducing a then relatively new topic in mathematical physics, geophysical fluid dynamics, to graduate students in physical sciences. It has been held each summer since and promotes an exchange of ideas among the many distinct fields that share a common interest in the nonlinear dynamics of rotating, stratified fluids. These fields include classical fluid dynamics, physical oceanography, meteorology, astrophysics, planetary atmospheres, geological fluid dynamics, hydromagnetics, and applied mathematics. Even more importantly, GFD each year introduces eight to ten graduate student "fellows'' to the special rewards of interdisciplinary research, showing them that the difficult problems of geophysical fluid dynamics are common to many fields, and that solutions are frequently to be found outside the narrow subdiscipline in which each scientist receives his or her formal training. Over its history, the GFD program has produced numerous alumni, many of whom are prominent scientists at universities throughout the world.

Each year's session is devoted to a central topic, beginning with a two-week course by the "principal lecturer,'' whose task is to present a self-contained introduction, including research problems of current interest, in a precise but compact fashion. The fellows take notes which, after editing by the lecturer, become a central part of the annual volume. The course notes from past GFD sessions comprise a unique and valuable resource to the research community. Many are essentially mini-textbooks by research scientists who would never take the time off to write a regular text.

Most of the audience are experts in some aspect of GFD, but only a minority work in the same field as the principal lecturer. Thus questions are frequent, and often evoke considerable discussion among the audience. The fellows soon join in the discussions and debates precipitated by the free-wheeling atmosphere in the lecture room.

Seminars are highly interactive; speakers must be prepared for probing questions, not only on the technical details of the work, but on the fundamental assumptions and approximations which specialists often take for granted. In clarifying these points to the satisfaction of the students and the staff, applications to other problems or even the necessity for reassessing the underpinnings of the work often become clear. Collaborations with researchers in other disciplines and with the fellows begin (sometimes right in the middle of the lecture). Discussions continue on the porch (Read more about discussions on the porch) and in the offices. For many of the students and young scientists attending GFD, this intensive, questioning, and cross-disciplinary style of doing science represents a striking departure from the group meetings and weekly seminars at their home institutions.

Throughout the program, staff members and visitors present research according to the same ground rules as the principal lecturer. Many talks address the session's central topic, but many do not. Participants are sometimes pressed into giving unplanned talks on subjects of sudden interest, or mini-courses on topics in which they have special expertise. The student fellows each select a research project to be completed under the guidance of one or more staff members. They are strongly encouraged to work on projects outside their previous experience. In many cases, the project forms the basis for a PhD thesis, or appears later in an expanded form in a scientific journal. The fellows present the results of their projects in formal seminars during the last week of the program and write up their progress for the annual volume. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) has been the home for GFD since its beginning, and has been extremely generous to the program, providing office space, access to rotating fluids labs, subsidized housing, and administrative support. Our long residence at Walsh Cottage means that scientists traveling through the Northeast in summer automatically plan a visit to the program. In return, of course, GFD benefits WHOI; many eminent non-oceanographers know the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution solely for its sponsorship of GFD. WHOI staff members frequently attend the seminars and work with the visiting scientists.

The scientific explosion which has spread the knowledge of basic geophysical fluid dynamics throughout the world has also propelled the many scientific fields that make use of this knowledge far apart. Oceanographers, meteorologists, astrophysicists, and planetary dynamicists have each developed their own style and language, so that it is often difficult to identify common problems or to transfer scientific breakthroughs between fields. Journal articles address experts in the same narrow subspeciality, and the twin barriers of jargon and unexplained context discourage other readers. At the same time, fundamental new tools in applied mathematics and mathematical physics go unnoticed by those who could benefit from them. This situation is of course not unique to geophysical fluid dynamics -- it is part of the increasing compartmentalization of science that threatens to stifle progress -- but it is especially threatening to an inherently cross-disciplinary field.

In this environment, the GFD program is a clearinghouse for scientific knowledge in fields as diverse as oceanography and astrophysics. The difficulties of communication between specialists are overcome by prolonged personal contact in the informal atmosphere of Walsh Cottage, and by the GFD maxim that lecturers learn from their audiences. In a sense, GFD is the antithesis of the typical scientific workshop, which convenes experts with a single purpose.

Scientists visit the program for periods ranging between one and ten weeks. All are expected to interact with the student fellows and those who stay a substantial portion of the summer provide continuity and close supervision of the student research projects. This mixture of short and long visits helps maintain a dynamic and stimulating atmosphere for the fellows.

The interdisciplinary atmosphere of Walsh Cottage is the ideal place for young scientists to learn the habits of broad inquiry, of speaking to others with very different backgrounds and viewpoints, and of seeking answers in unfamiliar places.