We hear about the celebrities who passed away in 2017, but what about the innovative scientists and engineers whose work has greater impact?
Now that a new year has begun, it's time for the "media" to acknowledge prominent individuals who have passed on. Unfortunately, many of those who get such recognition are Hollywood-celebrity types: movie and TV stars, entertainers, politicians, and similar. That's too bad, for it's the real contributors who deserve our attention.
For the Hollywood types, actual accomplishment, skill, or expertise is often secondary, as many of these so-called notables didn't do much that was distinctive or long-lasting or are famous primarily for being famous. Others managed to be in the right place at the right time, such as being associated with a hit TV show — and they (or their publicists) parlayed that good fortune. Perhaps that was their real skill rather than the ones for which they are being lauded?
To counter this imbalance, I will highlight a few science and engineering individuals of genuine accomplishment, whose efforts have benefited so many — perhaps with little glamour or financial gain for themselves. While there are many who could be cited, I selected three with diverse technical accomplishments. I provided links to their obituaries. Some, however, are behind a paywall, so you may not be able to see them. Of course, you can do a quick search on any of them and certainly find other reports and more details.
My three somewhat arbitrary choices are, in alphabetical order:
Vanu Bose, who passed away unexpectedly at age 52 due to a pulmonary embolism. While he initially was in the shadow of his late father, MIT professor Amar Bose (renowned audio expert, developer of the innovative Bose speaker system, and founder of the eponymous audio company), Vanu obtained bachelor, master, and Ph.D. degrees from MIT. His graduate research involved using skin patches as alternatives to needles or pills for delivery of medication. He spent two years providing eye care in impoverished countries, and eventually became a member of MIT's board of trustees.
His accomplishments involved far more than just academic stature. His company, Vanu Systems, has developed low-cost ($5K to $10K), easily deployed cellphone towers. These function as base stations in areas that lack infrastructure, as well as areas ravaged by disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes, where connectivity and communications are vital to rescue and recovery; see more about him and his efforts in The Wall Street Journal or The Boston Globe.
Richard Morley was an iconoclastic, independent, self-taught engineer who dropped out of MIT and even quit one of his first jobs when his employer refused to give him a flexible schedule that would allow him to ski on less-crowded weekdays. Inspired by a hangover-induced idea in the late 1960s, he developed the programmable logic controller (PLC), which was an all-electronic, easily re-programmable control system.
Morley's Modicon PLC quickly obsoleted the inflexible, electromechanical industrial controller, which was hardwired (via patch cords) and used switches, relays, timers, and counters. Unlike his PLC, these units were time-consuming, frustrating, and difficult to set up, document, reconfigure, and troubleshoot. Nonetheless, as they were the only production-control system available until his PLC was developed, they were widely used in automotive and other industrial production lines.
Although it was a solid-state computer internally, Morley designed the PLC with a user-facing operation that was familiar to electricians; he used the ladder-logic programming and symbols with which they were already comfortable, thus speeding its adoption. Morley eventually sold Modicon to Schneider Electric for a substantial sum, then founded Andover Controls Company, which he also eventually sold. The highly reliable PLC has become the standard unit for control of industrial production and has greatly expanded its original capabilities, even though the PC-based controller is a viable alternative.
Nicolaas Bloembergen, who passed way at 97, was a co-recipient of the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physics (along with Arthur Leonard Schawlow) "for their contribution to the development of laser spectroscopy." The article in The Wall Street Journal crisply summarizes his many accomplishments: "He devised a more practical way to make lasers …
His research also led to MRI scans that produce crisp images of organs and tissue inside the human body. His work with photons and light waves contributed to optical-fiber communication." A UC professor who studied under Bloembergen noted that "any one of these three major accomplishments could have justified his Nobel Prize."
Prof. Bloembergen grew up in worn-and-torn Holland and had nearly completed his physics Ph.D. work there when he left for the U.S. in 1945. He was rejected as a student by the University of California and his application to University of Chicago was unanswered, but he was accepted by Harvard, where he studied under Edward Mills Purcell (a 1951 physics Nobel winner). He worked on the first NMR system (subsequently renamed magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI) — this nuclear resonance had been discovered only a few weeks before his arrival at Harvard — and then moved on to laser spectroscopy, where he modified the maser (the microwave predecessor of the laser) and investigated non-linear optics. There's more on his life, work, and MRI development here and here.
So, whose lives and passing in 2017 should be recognized: Hollywood celebrities who died of old age (or bad choices at a younger age) or people such as those who have contributed to so many long-lasting innovations and advances?
Are there any other names you would suggest?
— Bill Schweber is an engineer and technical writer who writes blogs for EE Times and EDN.com.