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WHOI Waypoints: A Fitting Gift for a Generous Genius

Just months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Arnold Arons, a young Harvard graduate student, came to WHOI to take part in what soon became the Underwater Explosives Research Laboratory, under the direction of his advisor, E. Bright Wilson Jr.

“We couldn’t do much in the way of explosives in Cambridge,” Arons joked. But off the WHOI pier and out in Vineyard Sound, the group could fire experimental charges and even full-scale weapons. Their work clarified much of the then-little-known physics of explosion phenomena. They tested and optimized various experimental explosive compositions to guide the national manufacturing effort and aid the Navy in its anti-submarine warfare effort.

After the war, Arons returned to academia as a professor at Stevens Institute of Technology and later at Amherst College, but he returned in summers to do research at WHOI, from 1947 until 1968, when he moved to the University of Washington. At first he continued working on explosion shock wave propagation, but his Woods Hole office was next to a young scientist named Henry Stommel, who soon enticed Arons to pursue physical oceanography.

Stommel had also taken part in several WHOI wartime projects and developed an interest in oceanography. In 1948, Stommel solved the mystery of why great wind-driven ocean currents, such as the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic and the Kuroshio in the Pacific, have intense, narrow streams on their western sides and broad sluggish flows on their eastern sides. Through a simple and elegant mathematical analysis, he showed that this asymmetry was caused by the spherical shape of the rotating earth. This profound and seminal breakthrough launched the modern era of physical oceanography, as well as Stommel’s long career as the century’s most influential oceanographer.

“Hank was an authentic genius,” Arons said. “He was the deepest thinker and one of the most generous people I’ve ever encountered. He had so many ideas, he couldn’t handle them all, and so he gave them to others.”

Arons said that Stommel taught him oceanography, and the two collaborated on research. “We built a model of circulation of the abyssal ocean that we thought was too simple to hold up,” Arons said, but decades later, their model remained the foundation for the World Ocean Circulation Experiment, the ongoing multi-national research effort to describe global ocean circulation.

“Throughout his career, Hank sought out people with great eagerness, inviting them to come to Woods Hole to talk oceanography and give colloquia, to bring new ideas and work out older ideas,” Arons said. “Discourse and interaction were part and parcel of his being. He’d fire his ideas at people, get their reactions, pick up information, sharpen his own insights. This exchange of ideas would provide the cues to subjects and problems that he would later sit down and penetrate.”

Stommel died in 1992, and in his honor, Arons and his wife, Jean, have established a charitable gift annuity with WHOI. The Aronses will receive income from the gift for the rest of their lives and then the money will be used to create The Henry Stommel Visiting Scholars Program.

“In expression of gratitude and respect for one of the finest and most generous people I’ve ever met, I wanted to establish a scholarship program that reflected what he valued and how he operated,” said Arons, now Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington and a WHOI Honorary Trustee and Corporation Member. The program will allow junior scientists at WHOI to invite visiting scholars to campus—much the way Stommel used to do.

“Young scientists will be able pick somebody from the outside that they want to be with, somebody at whose feet they would like to sit for a time, and talk with and chew problems over with,” Arons said.

The program, he hopes, will stimulate just the sort of scientific discourse—and occasional breakthroughs—that invigorated Henry Stommel, as well as the entire field of oceanography.

Originally published: March 1, 2000