The New York Times and ICES Celebrate 90th Birthday of Ivo Babuška

(Editor's note: Ivo Babuska's career and birthday celebration was featured in the New York Times April 26.)

When Ivo Babuška came to ICES more than 20 years ago, the Institute went by a different name, TICAM, the Texas Institute for Computational and Applied Mathematics. By 2003, the Institute had broadened in faculty expertise and research to warrant a name change, and the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences was born.

The Institute’s expansion into computational science and engineering while retaining a strong mathematical foundation mirrors what Babuška, a senior research scientist at the Institute, has been trying to get the mathematics and engineering communities to do for ages: improve problem solving by recognizing the importance math can lend to engineering and engineering to math.

“On one side are the engineers, and the other the mathematicians. And I get both. I lived in both worlds,” Babuška, who has Ph.D.s in both math and engineering, said. “I’m proud I was accepted in both and I’ve been able to speak with both languages. These two languages are different and this is the reason why collaborations and discussions between mathematicians and engineers are so complicated.”

Babuška has spread his message of the two fields taking strengths from each other in different ways. One is in his mathematical innovations, particularly his pioneering contributions to the field of finite element methods. Here, he led the development of the mathematical foundations of finite element methods, a breakthrough science and technology that transformed computer simulation methods in virtually all scientific and engineering disciplines over the last half century. The Babuška-Brezzi condition (named for Babuška and Italian mathematician Franco Brezzi, who developed the condition independently) became the major condition for the stability and convergence of the finite element method. And his work on the p-version theory of the h-p finite element method enabled optimal rate of convergence of the highest order.

“Rather than a mathematician looking for a problem, I would say he looks at science and engineering problems and brings to them mathematics,” said ICES Director Tinsley Oden of Babuška. “He brought a high level of sophistication to the subject at just the right time in history.”

Babuška’s research has been published in over 320 papers, and honored across the world. He’s received five honorary doctorates, the Czechoslovakia State Prize for Mathematics, the Birkhoff Prize from the American Mathematical Society/ Society of Industrial Applied Mathematics, the John von Neuman Medal from the United States Association for Computational Mechanics, the Bolzano Medal from the Czech Academy of Sciences, the Leroy P. Steele Prize for Lifetime Achievement from the American Mathematical Society, and the Congress Medal from the International Association for Computational Mechanics. He’s a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, European Academy of Sciences, and Engineering Academy of the Czech Republic. And to top it off, he has an asteroid, “36060 Babuška,” named in his honor.

Besides his impact on the field of finite elements, Babuška has spread his message by directly connecting with people—as a mentor and adviser to students and researchers at ICES, as a lecturing professor at the University of Maryland, and as an astute questioner.

“When he was still going to conferences he would make it his business to go to a lot of presentations by young people in the engineering field and go after them if he didn’t see mathematical rigor,” said ICES Assistant Director Leszek Demkowicz. “They were scared to death of him. But in the end it always had a very positive effect.”

Babuška’s high-standards can be summed up in a phrase he’s become known for over the years: A computational scientist or engineer must have enough confidence in their methods to “have the courage to sign the blueprints.”

To promote discussions in the finite element research community, Babuška founded the Finite Element Circus, an informal meeting for all things finite elements, while a professor at Maryland. In 1995 a southern spin-off called the Finite Element Rodeo was founded.

Because of his age, Babuška no longer travels to seminars. But on March 22, 2016—the day of Babuška’s 90th birthday-- the finite element modeling community will come to him.

On that day Oden, Demkowicz, and the rest of the ICES community and the United States Association for Computational Mechanics are teaming up to honor Babuška’s life and accomplishments by hosting a birthday bash in the form of a two-day seminar on finite element analysis.

Dozens of Babuška’s friends and colleagues are scheduled to attend the seminar and discuss the field Babuška had a fundamental role in shaping. Looking back at Babuška’s life, it’s interesting to note the mathematical and personal connections that shaped and influenced him.

Babuška was born in 1926 in Prague, Czechoslovakia. His interest in mathematics began in his early teens when he began being tutored by František Vyčichlo, a university professor in discrete geometry. The purpose of the advanced tutoring wasn’t to kindle any signs of early talent, Babuška says, but to ensure he received a decent understanding of mathematical principles. His father, an architect, had removed Babuška from high school so he could attend a vocational school for builders, where the skills the students learned were practical, but the math education was sparse. The college professor was able to serve as tutor to the teenage Babuška because he had no college students to teach. Occupying Nazi forces had shut down all universities in Czechoslovakia

Babuška credits the mathematics education he received from Vyčichlo, with impressing his examiners when applying to the Czech Technical University—which had reopened with the defeat of Hitler in 1945. When asked on an entrance exam to give the formula for a volume of a sphere in three dimensions, Babuška instead gave the formula for n dimensions.

At the university he went on to earn his Ph.D. in civil engineering in 1951, writing his thesis on the effects of welding on deformation and residual stresses under the guidance of František Faltus, a pioneer in structural steelwork engineering. At the same time as he was earning his Ph.D., Babuška began studying mathematics at the Central Mathematical Institute, Prague, later called the Mathematical Institute of Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, on a prestigious fellowship.

The fellowship was one of 12 created by the well-known mathematician Eduard Čech to revitalize mathematics in Czechoslovakia. The six years that universities were closed under Nazi occupation had created a gap in higher education and Čech intended the fellows and their mentors to act as a think tank for mathematical advancement.

“Members of this group later became leaders of Czech mathematics,” Babuška wrote of the group in his dinner speech for his 80th birthday.

The group, which included professors Vyčichlo (Babuška’s high school tutor), Čech, as well as Vladimir Korinek and Vladmir Knichal, was close-knit. They skied, hiked, and socialized together, developing a closeness that made for great research collaborations as well as friendships, Babuška said.

“It was very good. The professors completely devoted themselves to us,” Babuška said. “At Maryland I treated my graduate students in a similar way, like a family, going together hiking, skiing, and water-rafting.”

The fellowship also helped bring a mathematical eye to civil engineering problems he reviewed while earning his Ph.D. in the subject. Faltus welcomed the feedback while acknowledging that others could find Babuška’s suggestions unsettling. Babuška recalls his advisor once telling him “Ivo, you are the light that shows me how deep I can fall. Please don’t scare the engineers.”

Babuška’s dual education in engineering and mathematics led to his involvement in building the dam Orlik, a 400-foot-high concrete dam that was built on the river Vltava in the early 1950s. During this time, he was appointed the head of a research group of the Mathematical Institute of Czchoslovak Academy of Sciences, where he and a coworker did computational analysis of possible dam cracking. Within his first five years at the academy, he published his first two books, and founded an applied math journal. He also met his wife Renata.

Babuška continued his research at the academy throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. But in 1968, during the so-called Prague Spring, he left the country, obtaining permission to go to the United States with his family when the Soviet Army invaded Czechoslovakia. He went to Maryland, accepting an invitation for a visiting professorship at the University of Maryland at College Park that had been standing for a few years. A year after arriving he traded in his visitor’s visa for a permanent one and accepted a full professorship at the university’s Institute for Fluid Dynamics and Applied Mathematics—a post he held for close to 30 years.

At Maryland, Babuška made his most significant mathematical contributions to the field of finite element analysis. It’s also where, in 1969, he founded the Finite Element Circus, the event where Babuška and Oden first met.

The meeting jumpstarted a decades-long collaboration that continues to this day, with Babuška and Oden authoring many papers together on finite element methods and applied mathematics. When Babuška retired from teaching at the University of Maryland in 1995, Oden offered Babuška the opportunity to continue his studies as a researcher at what is now ICES. He’s been at the Institute ever since, holding dual appointments in the university’s aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics department and its mathematics department.

Babuška retired from teaching when he left Maryland for Texas, so he spreads his message of applying mathematics and engineering together to students outside of the classroom. He established the Babuška Forum, a seminar series dedicated to presenting a broad spectrum of contemporary topics in computational science from across the university. And he’s a mentor for undergraduate interns that come to ICES each summer to conduct research at the Institute. Jonas Actor, a 2015 intern and fourth-year mathematics student at the University of Chicago, said working with Babuška was the first time he applied his mathematical education to scientific problems. He spent his summer analyzing and calibrating multi-scale models of crystal growth in heat pipes.

“It was a very, very different experience because my university’s math department is strictly a pure math program,” Actor said. “ It was really cool to see how the math and the theories actually applied to problems like that. My work over the summer made me more interested in going to graduate school for computational engineering.”

The birthday seminar will celebrate 90 years of Babuška spreading the word of engineering and mathematics to experts and undergraduates alike. Oden says, there are no signs of him stopping yet.

“He doesn’t get tired, he is always ready to solve a problem,” Oden said.

Posted: March 14, 2016