Joseph Bishop Keller, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics and Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University, former Professor of Applied Mathematics at New York University, and member of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Program at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, died from cancer in his home at Stanford on September 7, 2016 at age 93.
Known for his remarkable breadth in the physical sciences, the life sciences, and engineering, Joe Keller demonstrated the significant impact that mathematics could contribute to our fundamental understanding of scientific phenomena. He used and developed a mathematical method of approximation, known as “asymptotic analysis”, and applied it to predict behavior throughout the domains of science. Considered by many to be the “Dean of Applied Mathematics”, Keller was best known for his geometrical theory of diffraction, a seminal method for determining how waves are deflected by the surface of an object. This work has had broad applications to radar, stealth technology, and antenna design, and has been deemed an indispensable tool for engineers and scientists.
Keller also studied many other issues related to national security, including the possibility that underwater explosions of atomic bombs might cause a tsunami – a question that concerned the U.S. government as it prepared to test nuclear devices at Bikini Atoll. But his interests in mathematical phenomena were wide-ranging. In collaboration with colleagues and graduate students, he used the methods of asymptotic analysis to describe eigenvalue spectra in quantum mechanics, to develop optimal strategies for runners in a race, to study the propagation of nerve pulses, to model the development of the visual system in mammals such as kittens, and to understand the locomotion of worms and how it differs from that of snakes. With a child at a party, he might discuss how tiny soda bubbles assemble and form patterns in a glass. His intellectual curiosity and humor were recognized in two Ig Nobel Prizes for “research that makes you laugh and then makes you think”. The first of these, in 1999, honored his work explaining why teapots dribble and how to avoid it. The second, in 2012, recognized his discussion of the physical forces that make a jogger’s ponytail swing horizontally while the jogger is oscillating vertically.
Keller was a member of the National Academy of Science (NAS), a Foreign Member of the Royal Society of London, and Honorary Professor of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Cambridge. He has received some of the world’s highest scientific honors, including the Wolf Prize in Mathematics (1997), the Frederick E. Nemmers Prize (1996), the NAS Award in Applied Mathematics and Numerical Analysis (1995), the National Medal of Science (1988), the Timoshenko Medal (1984), the Eringen Medal (1981), and the von Karman Prize (1979). He was the Gibbs Lecturer of the American Mathematical Society (1977), and the von Neumann Lecturer of the Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematics (1983). His work earned him honorary doctorates from eight universities in the US and Europe.
In awarding him the Wolf Prize in Mathematics, the Wolf Foundation noted that Keller “brought a deep understanding of physics and a superb skill at asymptotics to an astonishing range of problems,” adding, “He is really the model of what a mathematician interested in a wide variety of physical phenomena can and should be.”
Keller is survived by his wife, Alice S. Whittemore, his children, Sarah N. Keller of Bozeman, MT and Jeffrey M. Keller of Somerville, MA, step-daughters Gayle Whittemore of Los Angeles, CA and Margot Palermo of Brookhaven, NY, as well as ten grandchildren and step-grandchildren, and several nieces and nephews.