Rogue Waves of Light

In April 2005, the cruise ship Norwegian Dawn, sailing through moderately choppy waters off the southeastern U.S. coast in a waning storm, was suddenly hit by a huge wave more than 20 meters in height. The wall of water was said to have come out of nowhere, and hammered the ship, though no lives were lost in the incident. The Norwegian Dawn may have encountered a freak, or “rogue,” wave—a rare and giant wave appearing unpredictably on the ocean’s surface. Long a part of sailors’ lore, rogue waves have in recent years become objects of intense oceanographic study.
Such rare and unpredictable events, however, are not just limited to the ocean. For some eight years, it’s been known that similar disturbances can occur in optical systems as well. The mathematical and physical analogies between these “optical rogue waves” and rogue wave phenomena in the oceans (and in other physical systems), while not exact, are intriguing. Can studying optical instabilities also illuminate ocean dynamics? 

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