Sextant to satellite the education of a land-based oceanographer

S. George Philander

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

1 Scopus citations


The second half of the twentieth century was a most remarkable period in the field of physical oceanography. Into the 1980s oceanographers were still relying on stars and sextants to gather information as vitally important as the position of a ship at sea. Asking for "a tall ship and a star to steer her by" was not merely a romantic wish, but a practical necessity. Today it is possible to pinpoint the location of a ship by means of the Global Positioning System (GPS) which depends on several satellites in space. Such a remarkable change presumably had a profound effect on the way oceanographers see themselves, and the way they relate to the oceans. Sextants are the instruments of explorers-individualists who brave the elements and venture into uncharted territory in search of new worlds. Did the launching of the Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, in 1957, cause oceanography to lose its romance? Are there any worlds still to be conquered? No, oceanography has not lost its romance, and, yes, there still are exciting discoveries to be made. I did not anticipate these answers when, during the 1990s, I tried to fathom why I was becoming more and more discontented with developments inmyfield, physical oceanography. Wasmydisquietude simply part of growing old, as several of my contemporaries, including Dennis Moore, Ed Sarachik, Jacques Merle, and Jay McCreary, suggested? Or are there objective reasons for being concerned about the activities of oceanographers today? There are ample reasons for nostalgia about the recent, post-Sputnik past. The launching of that satellite changed oceanography radically, but not adversely; it proved a bonanza for science in general, physical oceanography in particular. For a while scientists had easy access to resources for research, and enjoyed remarkable freedom to pursue science for the sake of science-science for the sake of understanding natural phenomena. The problems that oceanographers chose to investigate, related mostly to oceanic variability, yielded rich rewards. During the early 1990s it became evident that this exciting period was coming to an end. Three changes were clearly evident. (i) Oceanography, which used to be "bottom-up," with scientists identifying problems to be solved, then organizing and implementing programs to do so, had become "top-down" with managers and bureaucrats playing far more prominent roles. (ii) The field had lost some of its cohesion. For example, the perspectives of different groups on the same phenomenon, El Niño, became so different that the mere title of a paper on that topic now indicates whether the author is from Seattle, Los Angeles, or New York. (iii) Whereas the scientific and social interests of oceanographers used to be divorced-opposition to thewar inVietnam or apartheid in South Africa did not affect the choice of research topics-many scientists now want their science to influence policy. At first I was unable to articulate why I was uncomfortable with these developments, especially the last one. By chance I came across two authors who provide valuable insights. One is Derek de Solla Price1 who describes lucidly what happens when a "little science" grows into a "Big Science." (Although his is one of the most frequently cited books in the field of history and philosophy of science, surprisingly few scientists know of it.) The other author is the philosopher Isaiah Berlin2 who explains eloquently why the profound differences between the worlds of science and of human affairs can cause the two worlds to be in conflict. A scientist who predicts El Niño, for example, should expect other scientists to be skeptical of the results; the practice of "organized skepticism" is essential for progress in science. On the other hand, a scientist who tries to persuade government officials that the prediction calls for the implementation of certain policies, will have no success if he is skeptical of the forecast. We should at least be aware of such dilemmas when we try to bridge science and politics. We should also appreciate that an excessive reliance on science in our attempts to deal with the societal aspects of environmental problems can be counterproductive if not disastrous. This is clearly evident in our attempts to cope with failures of the Indian monsoons early in the twentieth century.3 The continually changing social and political environment strongly influences the activities of scientists. The period from 1957 to 1982, a most unusual one for physical oceanography, was initiated and terminated by the same global political factors. The exciting period started because of concern that the former Soviet Union could be scientifically more advanced than the countries of the West. It ended when the fall of communism prompted the sponsors of scientific research to start demanding useful results. The political change did not occur until the late 1980s but in oceanography a change was evident as early as 1982 when an entirely unexpected, severe El Niño impressed on oceanographers their obligation to alert the public of imminent disasters. Today oceanographers face a world very different from that of the 1960s. The competition for resources has become fierce, and the sponsors of research demand results that are of practical value. Maintaining a balance between the two complementary and equally important goals of science-science for the sake of understanding natural phenomena, and science for the sake of useful results-has become very difficult. Despite these differences, there are similarities between the situation today and that of the 1960s. Then, an interest in oceanic variability led to the melding of scientists with different backgrounds; observationalists, theoreticians, oceanographers, and meteorologists all interacted closely, thus creating a new community. This integration led to beneficial changes in the manner oceanographers conduct their affairs. Once again, today, groups with different backgrounds need to merge in order to make progress on challenging and important scientific questions. Foremost is the need to anticipate how the current, rapid rise in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide will affect the global climate. Changes in the oceanic circulation will be of central importance. Oceanographers have developed theories that explain that circulation, and the factors that can cause it to change, but a major problem is the lack of tests for the theories. The time scales of interest are so long, decades and more, that the measurements being made at present and in the near future will be of limited value. How do we respond to our sponsors who want answers soon? Stringent tests for the theories are available in the geological records of the very different climates the Earth experienced in its distant past. Oceanographers are therefore obliged to take an active interest in paleoclimates. The challenge is daunting because physical oceanography has a vocabulary and methods-a culture-very different from that of paleoclimatology. The situation today has similarities with that of the 1960s; communities with different interests and methods need to cooperate. Familiarity with what happened over the past few decades can be a valuable guide. This article tells the story of those decades from the perspective of an unexceptional participant blessed with exceptionally good fortune. (For a more objective and detailed version of the same story3 see Philander, 2004.).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationPhysical Oceanography
Subtitle of host publicationDevelopments Since 1950
PublisherSpringer New York
Number of pages11
ISBN (Print)0387302611, 9780387302614
StatePublished - 2006

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Environmental Science
  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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