Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Learning about Life from Waves

By Stephen Luntz

Nail Akhmediev believes that the creation of rogue waves at sea could be a useful template for the conditions that gave rise to life on Earth.

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In February this year a rogue wave hit the giant cruise ship Marco Polo in the English Channel, killing a passenger and injuring another. As tragic as the event was, it represented a vindication for Prof Nail Akhmediev who has spent years studying these sorts of waves, which were once thought not to exist. Now, however, Akhmediev is pushing into more metaphorically choppy waters, using waves to model the origins of life.

“A soliton can be used as a model for life because it displays the simplest and most essential functions of life,” says Akhmediev, who is based at the Australian National University’s College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences. The claim seems strange – waves may grow and die but we usually do no think of them breeding. However, Akhmediev says that “energy flows across these waves, and some parts absorb and others dissipate it. Some can divide into two, and the process can continue indefinitely.”

Solitons are single waves that keep the same shape as they travel. They exist in all sorts of media. In January, Nature published a report of the first observation of solitons on silicon chips by researchers at the University of Sydney’s School of Physics – a step towards the development of photonic chips.

The waves Akhmediev is studying are called dissipative solitons. While the conservative forms exist in systems with constant energy,...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.