John Andrews Whitehead

2014 Maurice Ewing Medal Winner

John A. Whitehead was awarded the 2014 Maurice Ewing Medal at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 17 December 2014 in San Francisco, Calif. The medal is for “significant original contributions to the scientific understanding of the processes in the ocean; for the advancement of oceanographic engineering, technology, and instrumentation; and for outstanding service to the marine sciences.”


First, full disclosure: I am an isotope geochemist penning a citation for a fluid dynamicist. This is the first big hint that Jack Whitehead is unusual and special. Many will not think it complimentary if I say that all the fluid dynamics I know, I learned from Jack! But this speaks directly to the enormous and collegial generosity Jack brings to his science, students, and life. For me, it started when Jack suggested we “make some mantle plumes.” Thus began a journey of novelty and reward and sticky encounters with Karo syrup (likely warping my intuition about mantle plumes!). And what a scientific journey! Or, quoting T. S. Eliot, “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”

More grandly, Jack’s collegiality is reflected in his CV, a veritable Who’s Who of oceanography and fluid dynamics, to which we add the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution summer Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Program, which has influenced generations of bright students. They will remember Jack’s palpable love of science and his enthusiasm for arresting them into summer projects! Jack will be indelibly recollected as the resident spirit of the unique program known informally as the Walsh Cottage Summer School or, by some, as “the porch people.”

In the “real world” of oceanography, Jack pioneered the application of classical hydraulic theory to rotating flows and overflows. This started in 1974 with his seminal paper “Rotating Hydraulics of Strait and Sill Flows.” Over the next 30 years, Jack continued expanding the theory, also applying it to observational oceanography. This culminated in a 2007 book with Larry Pratt, Rotating Hydraulics: Nonlinear Topographic Effects in the Ocean and Atmosphere. This book is exceptionally thorough and useful and also relevant to the global climate system and the parameterizations used in climate models. Jack’s experimental demonstration of flows with multiple steady states is also directly relevant to the global climate system.

In 1975, Whitehead and Luther published “Dynamics of Laboratory Diapir and Plume Models,” which explored many basic dynamical issues underlying the behavior of buoyant plumes. This incredibly important paper migrated geoscientists toward support of Jason Morgan’s 1971 hypothesis concerning mantle plumes sourced at Earth’s core-mantle boundary. Jack’s trailblazing work nucleated a cascade of ever more complex experimental and theoretical studies. Today, Morgan’s plume theory rests comfortably on this amassed construction built on Whitehead and Luther’s research.

Jack Whitehead’s contributions to science and the community are extraordinary; he is an exemplary recipient of the Maurice Ewing Medal.

—Stan Hart, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, Mass.


Thank you all! It has been my good fortune to collaborate with almost 100 coauthors (so far), so mentioning each by name would be excessive. Their expertise includes physical oceanography, geochemistry, petrology, geophysics, volcanology, atmospheric dynamics, planetary dynamics, climate studies, applied mathematics, and physics. Their vocabulary exhausts me! I gratefully thank them for the success of our mutual results both as scientists and as educators. In addition, the complexity and mysteries of the oceans and Earth have surrounded me for 44 years at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Thanks to all my fellow scientists, staff, and students there. And, finally, in spite of all the observations, I require simple explanations to help me with the mathematics, dynamics, and interpretations of ocean and Earth data. Participation, since 1972, in the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Summer School has been essential and a joy! Finally, thanks to the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, and the joint program with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for supporting the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics program and my research.

Most of my work has used fluid mechanics laboratory experiments. Laboratory results differ from numerical modeling results, and the data differ from actual observations. Experimental runs can often be viewed in three dimensions evolving in time. Through the miracle of scaling and dimensionless numbers, a minute in the laboratory can transform to hundreds, thousands, or even millions of years in the oceans or on Earth. A centimeter can transform to meters or even kilometers. Finally, you can often see and sometimes even stir experiments. Incomparable! Thanks especially to technicians Paul Cox and Bob Frazel (both no longer with us), followed by John Salzig, Keith Bradley, and Anders Jensen. Also thanks to my fellow scientists Claudia Cenedese and Karl Helfrich. Showing results to visitors and to my wife, Lin, and children, Glen, Wendi, and Amie, has always been a pleasure and inspiration. We all have received numerous insights while watching experiments and have even had a few eureka moments. It has been wonderful!

Speaking of eureka, I want to encourage everyone out there to try a new idea, the one you always wanted to do. When he was younger, my son, Glen, once asked why the ocean water is blue. I hemmed, hawed, and mentioned the blue sky and nitrogen and so forth, but clearly, my explanations were going nowhere. He simply scowled and said, “well you’re a scientist, discover it!” So to everyone here, let’s discover something new! Thank you.

—John A. Whitehead, Department of Physical Oceanography, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, Mass.