Saturday, July 3, 2010

All hail Lewis Fry Richardson (1881-1953)

First time I came across his name was indirectly, as an undergrad, learning about something called "Richardson extrapolation", a method for inferring the convergence of a numerical analysis. Then, much (much) later, as I was rethinking turbulence in blood, I came across Richardson as one of the pioneers of modern turbulent flow theory, and as the author of this unsurpassedly clever and concise description of turbulence:
Big whorls have little whorls
that feed on their velocity,
And little whorls have lesser whorls
and so on to viscosity.
Shortly thereafter -- OK, so I didn't pay close attention to my reading of Gleick's "Chaos" many years back -- I learned about Richardson's anticipation of fractals via his musings on the measurement of coastlines, something that arose out of his interest in divining the mathematical rules underlying human conflict; and of his anticipation of chaos theory through his pioneering work in weather prediction. By virtue of what some might call his mania for the latter, he arguably founded modern numerical analysis and finite difference methods.

If that weren't enough, thanks to my reading of Abigail Swillens' fine PhD thesis, I learned that Richardson filed the first patent for underwater echo-ranging (apparently inspired by the sinking of the Titanic), a precursor to sonar and, by extension, medical ultrasound.

In short, virtually everything I do in my research can be traced back, with far fewer than six degrees of separation, to Lewis Fry Richardson. For more about Richardson's life and works, there's the at-your-fingertips Wikipedia of course, but also a nice 1998 review in the Annual Reviews of Fluid Mechanics.

No comments:

Post a Comment