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It all started with a whale and a man named Fish.
As the story goes, Frank Fish was on vacation with his fiancée in Boston when he spotted a fine-art sculpture of a humpback whale in Quincy Market. On closer inspection, he noticed the flippers had bumps on the edges.
"I thought 'The artist got this all wrong,'" he recalls with great clarity despite the passage of almost 30 years. "But when the store manager pulled out a picture of the real deal, it had prominences, too. I was blown away."
Fish, a plain-spoken and affable biology professor at West Chester University in West Chester, Penn., had always assumed these wing-like extremities worked like other straight-edge airfoils, such as airplane wings. But then he realized that he had been wrong. And that fateful revelation changed his life forever.
Like a modern-day Ahab, Fish became obsessed with these bumps. He wanted to find out exactly how they worked in water and what their advantages were. To do this, he even went so far as to obtain a 10-foot-long humpback flipper from the New Jersey Marine Mammal Stranding Center and distributed by the Smithsonian for research purposes. He created dozens of mathematical models to prove how the bumps must reduce drag, suggesting a new approach to the science of fluid dynamics.