Edward A. Spiegel, 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.
Edward Spiegel grew up in the South Bronx, the only son of Yiddish speaking East European immigrants and brother to Jeanette Stein. Ed met his wife Barbara at the University of Michigan when they were students. Barbara, whom he often described as the love of his life, was the focal point and nerve center of Ed’s personal life. Barbara and Ed were married in Woods Hole and remained so until her untimely death in 2011.
Ed graduated from DeWitt-Clinton H.S. in 1948 and attended UCLA as an undergraduate, earning his Ph.D. 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 in Physics S. Chandrasekhar, who hosted Ed for an extended visit to Yerkes observatory. Chandra delivered lectures on the subject of turbulence and Ed’s notes from that course were recently published by Springer. Also while at Michigan, Ed was one of the founders of a new summer program in geophysical fluid dynamics at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. The highly-regarded GFD program is still active at Woods Hole and has become an international and interdisciplinary training ground for oceanographers, astronomers, meteorologists, and climate scientists. In many ways, Ed Spiegel’s immense breadth of knowledge and creative abilities were channeled into the summer program throughout the rest of his life.
After teaching briefly at U.C. Berkeley, Ed was awarded a fellowship at Princeton where he continued his research on turbulence, working with Robert Kraichnan, before moving to The Courant Institute, where he remained and joined the New York University 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 dean at NYU that Ed teach his courses at 9 o’clock in the morning. Edward Spiegel was named Rutherfurd Professor of Astronomy in 1980, a title he held until he was named Professor Emeritus.
The recipient of many awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, Ed’s greatest and much-valued recognition came from his colleagues. He was, in many ways, a scientist’s scientist who defied categorization and 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’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 in 1966, a few years after Lorenz’s much lauded paper. 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 Edward Spiegel’s 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 remarkable originality openly shared his ideas, Ed is 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. Most recently, his research interests turned to a new formulation of the equations of fluid dynamics, which give a better description of fluid behavior in cases where the notorious Navier-Stokes equations fail. In some of his last papers and talks, Ed presented this work and the role he believed it may play in understanding cosmological problems, such as dark matter and dark energy, by means of its coupling to Einstein’s equation.
Ed often said that he would spend as much time with his students as they would allow him. An avid fan of art, music and of travel, Ed would readily recite a poem from his youth, a detailed scientific result from a paper he read, a Marx Brothers routine or a joke, which his students were expected to learn and later re-tell, with improved delivery, if possible). Though Ed was a renowned astronomer, physicist, and mathematician he mentored and cared especially intensely about the well-being of his students, a connection that typically persisted long into his students’ careers.
comments from Ed's friends:
obituary in the Cape Cod Times:
Ed Spiegel's works: