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Thursday, March 4, 2010

Going Rogue

Waves are everywhere.

Most of the time they are very predictable. The mathematics of probability theory show that the size of waves fall within a very clearly defined window of measurable and predictable amplitude.

But is size everything?

Earlier this week a 26-foot rogue wave came out of nowhere to hit a cruise ship in the French Mediterranean. Two passengers were killed and six people injured.

The study and science of "rogue" or "freak" waves is rather new. It's really in the past decade that researchers have had the tools to study the phenomenon in depth. Many didn't even believe that the phenomenon existed, since there was no clear scientific evidence on record.




The entire world-wide shipping industry has evolved on the assumption that waves will never attain a height beyond 50-feet. Ships are designed to withstand that "worst case" scenario, but anything taller is likely to inflict damage or disaster. But in the last two decades over 200 supertankers and container ships exceeding 200 metres in length have been damaged or were sunk by this random and freakish act of nature.

Then on New Year's day in 1995, the Draupner platform in the North Sea was pounded by one of the mysterious rogue waves. It was massive, and oddly enough, it was the first time a rogue wave had ever been recorded.


A rogue wave is not the same as Tsunami. They come out of nowhere, and can occur anywhere in the sea. They also defy our assumptions about how waves are created.

The new paradigm regarding rogue waves utilizes a different mathematical model, one that is associated with quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics does not neatly conform our old rules of classical physics. Rogue waves are not possible in Newton's world

In a nutshell, rogue waves are thought to be nonlinear.

If you are the sort of person that needs an equation to explain the ocean surf, then you will be comforted to know that the nonlinear Schrödinger equation (NLS) does the job.

For those of us who are math-challenged, all you really need to know is that rogue waves start off as a "normal" wave, but then suck up energy from its' adjacent neighbors. The waves just before and after the emerging rogue wave are demoted to mere ripples. Their energy is transferred to the rogue wave, and it becomes a solid wall of moving water.

The upper limit is not known, but past encounters have shown that rogue waves can attain a height of well over 100 feet. Think about that the next time you book a vacation cruise.

As someone who in inclined to think defensively, I began to wonder if the nonlinear Schrödinger equation might apply to other areas of the physical universe. For example, is there such thing as a rogue sound wave? Is it possible that a non suspecting audience at Symphony Hall attending a concert by the Boston Symphony might be subjected suddenly to a "death wave" of sound emerging randomly from a performance of Beethoven's 5th symphony?

I've heard a lot of rogue pieces of music in my life, but so far the random killer piece of music has resulted from acts that are purely human in origin. But it does beg the question since this nonlinear phenomenon is proven to be fact (albeit relatively rare): Is there even a remote possibility that a freakish synergy created by some strange combination of audio frequencies could behave in this deadly fashion?

To be honest, I wouldn't rule it out.


Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rogue_wave


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