SMS 491: Physical solutions to every-day problems in aquatic sciences

# of credits: 2.

 Team taught by:

Pete Jumars


Emmanuel Boss


Syllabus and class activities

Links of material with relevance for this class


This course focuses on using physical principles, concepts and approaches to explain observed phenomena in aquatic sciences.  The course emphasizes "hands-on" activities; half the time in the class will be devoted to laboratory sessions. Due to the emphasis on laboratory work the class is limited to 20 students.  The course is intended for 2nd/3rd year students in SMS and has no prerequisites.  The class will meet for two hours a week; one in lecture/discussion, the other in lab. Course material will be posted on a dedicated web site.


Grading in the class will be based on participation (20%), weekly assignments (50%) a mid-term exam (15%) and a final exam (15%).  Extra credit: students electing to write a term paper (5 pages maximum), whose topic they discussed with one of the instructors, could replace the exam grades with that of the term paper. There will be no make-up/retake/rescheduled exams. Late assignment will suffer an automatic 10% decrease in grade.

 The course will cover the following subjects:

Conservation principles in physics (mass, momentum, energy) and the 2nd law of thermodynamics.  Using these principles we will address issues such as:

Scaling and dimensional analysis.

Properties of marine media (water, suspensions, solutions, mud and sand)


Random walks and diffusion

Mixing and stirring

Mechanics and energetics of swimming

Viscosity and drag


These subjects will be addressed using "real-life" examples from marine sciences such as biomechanics of fishes, sensory ecology, pollution/spread of contaminants in aquatic environments and the physics of diving. 

Questions that students graduating from the class will be able to answer are

  1. How do contaminants migrate up a river?
  2. Why is molecular diffusion so effective at small scales and so ineffective at large scales?
  3. Why must small plankton swim by different mechanisms than fishes?
  4. What is the likelihood of encounter of mating creatures in the water vs. on the ocean bottom?
  5. Why do sailboats have keels?  and did you know that flagellates use the same principle?