Wednesday, February 12, 2014

RIP Gerald Whitham (1927–2014)

Well, another one of the old guard from Caltech applied mathematics is gone. I found out earlier today that Gerald Whitham died on January 26th. Gerald was one of the pre-eminent early scholars in the study of nonlinear waves, which are near and dear to my heart.

I took Gerald's class AMa 98 when I was at Caltech --- that iteration of AMa 98 was the last class that he ever taught --- and that was the class that introduced me to solitons (so Whitham is the guy who showed me my first soliton). As many of you know, I have had a lot of fun in my career thinking about solitary waves (and, to a lesser extent, solitons). You can find one of those by-hand calculations in my scholarpedia entry on solitons (and related phenomena).

I was Gerald Whitham's last undergraduate advisee. This was in the sense of signing my cards so that I could take my classes --- we never worked on research together, though obviously some of his research interests rubbed off on me. He retired after my sophomore year (or at least rarely ever showed up to campus after that ... this page claims that he retired in 1998, but I think it was technically 1996), and my advisor was then switched over from Whitham to Oscar Bruno. Whenever I saw Whitham to get my card signed, he would inevitably complain about how the math department kept switching back and forth for the organization of the Math 107, 108, and 109 trifecta. (These switches occurred every decade or so, as far as I can tell. When it existed, Math 107 was a general introduction to analysis and topology, and then 108ab was analysis and 109ab was geometry. In the other form, 108abc was analysis and 109abc was geometry, where I believe that Math 107 was more or less the same as Math 108a.)

Update (2/22/14): Pasadena Star-News had an obituary for Whitham about a week ago.

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