Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Program

2008 Excellence in Earth and Space Science Education Award Winner

The Geophysical Fluid Dynamics program received the Excellence in Geophysical Education Award at the 2008 Joint Assembly Honors Ceremony, which was held on 29 May 2008 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The award honors “a sustained commitment to excellence in geophysical education by a team, individual, or group.” George Veronis, cofounder of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics program, accepted the award.


George Veronis Group
George Veronis Group


The Geophysical Fluid Dynamics (GFD) program is now in its fiftieth year. The program started at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1959 and almost immediately was given its present form by a steering committee made up of Willem V. R. Malkus, George Veronis, Edward A. Spiegel, Louis Howard, Melvin Stern, and Henry Stommel. Not long afterward, Joseph Keller joined the team. Most of the founders have continued to participate in the program; in fact, many will be attending this summer.

The 10-week GFD program has maintained a persistent, positive example of dynamic graduate education by example and apprenticeship. It provides an exchange of knowledge and ideas between investigators in the different scientific disciplines that deal with the dynamics of fluids in oceans, in atmospheres, in the Earth’s interior, in planetary interiors, and in stars. Its approximately 60 lectures each year attract staff and students from all over the world. These lectures often extend far beyond their planned 50 minutes, punctuated with questions and remarks from a virtually tireless audience.

All of this happens in a small, unfinished building called Walsh Cottage. The lecture room has blackboards on three sides, and up to 40 people squeeze in, often twice a day. Then something magical happens.

The structure of the program is fixed. First, the principal lectures, which offer an overview of the program’s particular topic each year, take place during the first 2 weeks. Additional lectures by the staff and up to 30 visitors follow daily for the next 6 weeks, often at the rate of two per day. These cover an especially broad range of topics. Some visitors stay only a few days; others participate for the full summer, helping students with their projects.

Each year the program admits approximately 10 graduate student fellows. The fellows prepare a summary of the principal lectures, and then each fellow solves an original research problem, reporting his or her results at the end of the program. Softball games and pizza nights relieve the work pressure and promote an atmosphere of teamwork and informality. The student fellows are assigned two small offices, but they are more likely to be found working in the computer trailer or on the front porch. Some projects are great successes and others sputter, but most are original and creative. Many fellows acquire lifelong contacts and colleagues. Well over 60% of the fellows have become faculty members, although others are successful at business, and one is even in Congress. Coverage is international, and there is a sizable percentage of women, some of whom have become leaders in their respective fields.

Virtually everything in fluid dynamics has been on Walsh’s blackboards: chaos, dynamo theory, turbulence, waves, boundary layers, coherent structures, non-Newtonian fluids, rotation, stratification, explosions, amplitude equations, evolution equations, compatibility conditions. All sizes are included, from bacteria to the cosmos. Timescales range from microseconds to billions of years, and velocities extend from microns per second to the speed of light. The list of lecturers reads like a who’s who of GFD. Every student should have such an experience; it is wonderful!

In its first 10 years the GFD program acquired international stature. Almost 50 years later it continues to make a steady and enduring contribution. An immense number of people (well over 1000) have participated. In a field that has experienced great changes, Walsh Cottage lectures are as vibrant and exciting today as when the program started.

A large percentage of the original team has participated for almost the entire span. Each member is highly prominent in a specific field, and the collective group has received a high number of honors for their own research. At GFD, they have played both different and overlapping roles. Malkus and Veronis served as organizers (and as softball coaches). They also engaged fellows in projects involving convection, dynamos, and ocean circulation. Spiegel sat (and sits) in the lecture room or on the front porch and entices students and staff alike into fruitful research in convection, bifurcation, and chaos. Stern pursued questions concerning convection and rotating fluids in the laboratory and with numerical work. Both Keller and Howard continually work with countless mathematical projects concerning fluid flow with all its variants, with some laboratory experiments sprinkled in. In the first 10 years, Stommel brought the ocean to the blackboards as only he could. Their cumulative works over the past half century are legendary.

It is a happy fact that many younger colleagues are eagerly continuing the program. To the founders, let us convey this from all of those who have benefited by your presence in the little cottage: We salute you!

—JOHN A. WHITEHEAD, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, Mass.


In September 1957, at the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics meeting in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Pierre Welander and I heard from a Swedish intelligence agent that the Soviet Union would send a satellite into orbit before the end of the month. Sputnik actually went into orbit on 4 October 1957, inducing the U.S. government to increase its support for the National Science Foundation (NSF) fourfold in 1 year. Because Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) had no formal educational program at the time, Hank Stommel, Willem Malkus, and I had been discussing the idea of starting a summer training program on the effects of rotation on fluid motions. In October 1958, I submitted to Paul Fye, director of WHOI, the first draft of a proposal for a summer program on geophysical fluid dynamics directed toward graduate students. Fye sent the five-page proposal to the director of NSF, asking for $31,500 for 3 years. It was accepted a few months later, and the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics program was born.

Before the program started, there had been a biweekly seminar series between theorists at WHOI and a group of meteorologists and applied mathematicians at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The latter included Lou Howard, who visited WHOI during the summers of 1957 and 1958. Another summer visitor was Ed Spiegel, a graduate student in astronomy at Michigan, who was working on stellar convection. He and Lou took part in the discussions. Melvin Stern, who had been in the Air Force, joined the WHOI staff at about that time.

In 1960, Willem Malkus, the director of the program for that summer, proposed that lectures be restricted to the first 2 weeks so that during the following 8 weeks the fellows could focus on their research, give a 1-hour lecture, and submit a written report at the end of the summer. The fellows also recorded their versions of the beginning lecture series for inclusion in the final report. This structure has been followed ever since, with a central theme for each summer ranging from rotation and stratification to convection in stars to non-Newtonian fluids.

The aim of the program is to induce fellows to learn by doing research rather than by taking courses. That transition is the most difficult one for graduate students to make. We select students who are just starting their research careers (usually after 2 years of graduate study), and we try to break down the common student-teacher barrier by cooperating on research efforts and by playing softball together in the local league.

Four of the staff were full-time employees at WHOI in 1959. Five years later they had all moved to other institutions. In order to continue the program, a steering committee was formed made up of Howard, Malkus, Spiegel, Stern, Stommel, and Veronis, all of whom had demonstrated a commitment to the program. Joe Keller, who was very effective in his first visit in 1965, agreed to come every other year and was added to the steering committee. From 1962 to 1971 the program was fully supported by the Advanced Training Projects section of NSF. After 1971 it has competed for funding with 5-year proposals submitted to NSF and the Office of Naval Research and has been supported mainly by NSF’s Division of Oceanography.

—GEORGE VERONIS, Yale University, New Haven, Conn., and cofounder, Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Program, Woods Hole, Mass.