Carl Wunsch: Has oceanography grown too distanced from the ocean?

Wunsch jacketWith the advent of computers, novel instruments, satellite technology, and increasingly powerful modeling tools, we have vast knowledge about the ocean. Yet because of technological advances, a new generation of oceanographers have grown increasingly distanced from the object of their study. Physics Today recently published a Q&A with Carl Wunch, author of Modern Observational Physical Oceanography: Understanding the Global Ocean. According to Wunch, the field of oceanography cannot rely on theoretical truths alone. In this interview, he emphasizes the importance of the discipline’s observational roots:

Before Modern Observational Physical Oceanography: Understanding the Global Ocean (Princeton University Press, 2015) was published, Carl Wunsch had already made “an immense contribution” to the field, writes Stuart Cunningham in his January 2016 review of the book for Physics Today. Cunningham counts more than 250 papers and “an astonishing list of master’s and PhD students whose own merits are widely recognized.”

Modern Observational Physical Oceanography is Wunsch’s fifth book. Cunningham writes that it will be “of value to anyone wishing to know more about how to observe the ocean, interpret the data, and gain insights on ocean behavior and on how oceanographers reach their understanding of it.”

Carl Wunsch

Carl Wunsch

Wunsch was the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physical Oceanography at MIT before his retirement in 2013; he is now a visiting professor at Harvard University. He received his PhD at MIT under the tutelage of renowned oceanographer Henry Stommel. Among other things, Wunsch has studied the effects of ocean circulation on climate.

Physics Today recently caught up with Wunsch to discuss Modern Observational Physical Oceanography and his views on climate change issues.

PT: What motivated you to take up this book after retiring from MIT?

WUNSCH: In talking to students and postdocs, and in teaching, it became clear that we are in an era increasingly dominated by modelers and theoreticians, for many of whom observations are something downloaded from the Web and then taken as a “truth.” The field of physical oceanography and its climate components has become ever more remote from its observational roots.

In the past 25 years physical oceanography developed a number of highly useful, up-to-date, but theoretically based textbooks. There was no book known to me to which one could direct a colleague or student that emphasized the interesting complexities of the very diverse data types oceanographers now have available. The beautiful theories emphasized by the existing textbooks can produce the misperception of a laminar, essentially steady, ocean and in the extreme case, one reduced to a “conveyor belt.”

Read the full interview in Physics Today, here.