A wave is more than its equation

When I first started at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography a year ago, I was a complete novice when it came to ocean-related activities.   California thrives on these things and I stuck out as a rather puzzled (and pale) foreigner from an industrial town in the north of England.   “We don’t ‘av sea up thur, lad.   In’t that where them fish down at chip shop come from?”     So I thought I’d at least better learn to surf, so as not to look quite so out of place.

I went to some classes organised by the university.   I did all right, considering that I had never actually seen anyone surfing in real life and so I genuinely had no idea what I was supposed to be doing.   It’s amazing how hard it is for a proper Californian to understand that concept.  ” No, I really don’t know… where does catching a wave actually happen and how do I make it happen?”    I did enjoy it as well, except for the class with really high surf when I swallowed more ocean than anyone could possibly have intended and consequently felt like vomiting for most of the last 20 minutes.     I didn’t give up though and I did learn to surf.

Mostly, I learned that surfing is an amazing example of physics in action.   You have all these wavepackets coming along, steepening as it gets shallower and all travelling at a speed which depends on their wavelength.   You see waves interfering and you see when the waves start to become non-linear as the assumptions of the simple wave equation break down.   And you are in the middle of this, frequently (at least in my case) upside-down a metre or so beneath the breaking wave crest, experiencing turbulence in a very personal way.   I thought back then of writing a piece for a physics magazine at home about how all 1st year undergraduate students should be taken off to a beach and taught to surf, so that they could experience wave physics first-hand, and appreciate what all the equations really mean in practice.

And now I discover from the video below, that someone actually teaches this class at Scripps and I never knew.   Good for them, but boo hiss that I didn’t find out until now.    I really think that this sort of class should be offered to all physics undergrads, so that they don’t forget that it all connects to the real world.    I wish that I’d known – I’d have asked for a copy of the course material so that I could see how it was presented.   I’m going to push for things like this to be more common when I get back to the UK.   I admit that surfing in the UK might not seem as attractive, and indeed might put off those fainter of heart, but so what?

Go forth, physicists of the world, and surf…

it seems that embedded video won’t work on this site so here’s the link:



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