Edward Spiegel (1931-2020)

February 3, 2020

It is with great sadness that we report the passing of Columbia Astronomy Professor Emeritus Ed Spiegel. We thank Phil Yecko (now a Professor at Cooper Union), in conjunction with colleagues and friends, for the following overview of his Ed's life.

Edward A Spiegel, the Columbia University Professor of Astronomy whose creative scientific work had a far-reaching influence on astronomy, mathematics, physics, engineering and biology, died on January 2, 2020 at his home in New York City at the age of 88. He is survived by his sister, Jeanette Stein and nephew Michael Stein.

The recipient of many awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, Ed’s greatest and most valued recognition came from his colleagues. He was, in many ways, a scientist’s scientist who defied categorization and who embodied interdisciplinary research. Among his peers were astronomers who considered him among the greatest contemporary astronomers, mathematicians who considered him among the greatest applied mathematicians and physicists who considered him among the greatest physicists.

Ed Spiegel grew up in the South Bronx, the only son of Yiddish speaking Eastern European immigrants. He graduated from DeWitt-Clinton high school in 1948 and then attended UCLA as an undergraduate, earning his PhD at The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1958, writing a thesis on fluid dynamics and radiation transfer in stars.

While at Michigan, Ed met future Nobel laureate S. Chandrasekhar, who hosted him for an extended visit to Yerkes observatory. Chandra delivered lectures on the subject of turbulence and Ed’s notes of those lectures were recently published by Springer. Also while at Michigan, Ed became involved with a new summer program in geophysical fluid dynamics (GFD) at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), becoming one of its founders. The highly-regarded GFD program is still active at WHOI, and has become an international and interdisciplinary training ground for oceanographers, astronomers, meteorologists and climate scientists. In many ways, Ed’s immense breadth of knowledge and creative abilities were channeled into this program throughout the rest of his life. It is also while at Michigan that Ed met his wife Barbara, who was the focal point and nerve center of Ed’s private life. Barbara and Ed were married in Woods Hole and remained so until her untimely death in 2011.

After teaching briefly at U.C. Berkeley, Ed was awarded a fellowship at Princeton where he continued his research on turbulence, working there with Robert Kraichnan, before moving to the Courant Institute, where he remained, soon joining the NYU Physics faculty in 1965. Although Ed was made Professor of Physics at NYU in 1967, he moved uptown, to Columbia University, in 1969, following the demand, by the then-dean at NYU, that Ed teach his courses at 9 o’clock in the morning. At Columbia, Ed was named the Rutherfurd Professor of Astronomy in 1980, a title he held until his transition to Emeritus Professor in 2009.

Ed Spiegel’s work on convection and turbulence in fluids led to an early discovery in the theory of chaos, in the form of the Moore-Spiegel oscillator, a mathematical model that exhibited deterministic unpredictability, embodied in a so-called chaotic attractor. Ed’s work in this area was contemporaneous with that of Ed Lorenz, but was published a few years later, in 1966. Ed’s research in nonlinear mathematics continued in the 1970s and 1980s as he worked with many collaborators, particularly in France, to develop important new results on the properties of dynamical systems and on pattern theory, explaining how such systems can lead to bursting and intermittent behavior or to structures such as pulses. Never content with a bare mathematical result, Ed showed how such models were linked to cardiac arrhythmia, the solar cycle and the structure of the universe. At the root of his creativity was an interest in the dynamics of fluids, and he contributed immensely to the theoretical understanding of fluids in astrophysics, geophysics, biology and their general mathematical behavior in hundreds of published works.

A thinker with abundant ideas and remarkable originality who openly shared his ideas, Ed is also known for coining the term “blazar” for an astrophysical phenomenon that produces bright emissions from active galactic nuclei. Ed championed the role of vortices in the observed properties of astrophysical disks, including in the formation of structures, such as planets, reviving an idea first expressed by Immanuel Kant, that continues to be an active topic.

Read more at www.edwardaspiegelastrophysicist.


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