Tinsley Oden at 80: Keen insights from a long career

As a researcher, mentor, professor, author, and founding director of ICES, Oden has played a key role in globalizing computational science. He is pictured with many of the computational projects he has overseen as director of ICES and its UT predecessors since 1993.

As a sophomore in engineering at Louisiana State University Tinsley Oden, ICES director, says he remembers rushing out of his dynamics class to shoot arrows and swing pendulums.

He calculated the arrows’ initial velocity based on how far they went, and determined the frequency of pendulums based on their mass and length. These simple experiments cemented in Oden the power of mathematics to explain the world.

“The fact that through the process of the human mind, using mathematical abstractions, you could actually write down how natural systems would behave was a great revelation to me. I became infatuated with it,” said Oden.

Oden would go on to be a major player in the development and global acceptance of computational mechanics—a field that uses mathematical models to create computer simulations of complex physical systems. His contributions in establishing computational mechanics have been recognized throughout the world from his Knighthood in France to five honorary doctorates and a long hall full of medals and awards.

March 20-21, 2017 the U.S. Association for Computational Mechanics and ICES host the international conference "Advances in Computational Sciences and Engineering" to honor Oden's 80th birthday and the achievements of his long and productive career.

2013 was a particularly significant year in his career as a pioneer in the world of computational science. He was named the Honda Prize Laureate that year. Two computational science colleagues were named Nobel Prize Laureates.

“This is further evidence that computational science, and computer science, and simulation have reached a level of significance and maturity that is worthy of being recognized along with other traditional disciplines. So, that is especially gratifying,” said Oden.

The awarding of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to three computational chemists for multi-scale modeling of complex systems offered another symbol of the “coming of age” for computational science and engineering.

“As the guru and pioneer in simulation-based engineering and science, I think Dr. Oden also deserves a lot of credit,” said Ken Chong, professor of Engineering and Applied Science at George Washington University and former program director of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Mechanics and Materials division, after the Nobel winners were announced.

The development of computational science and engineering to model and simulate the physical world evolved as a passion for Oden before computers evolved fully as a tool. And Oden remained intrigued by the physics questions his math could address.

Computational mechanics works by defining phenomena in terms of mathematical equations, which are then broken down, or “discretized,” into parts that computers can process into numerical solutions, which can be rendered into visual representations.

The field has enabled topics that were previously out of reach because of scale, time or finances, to be pursued via simulation. It has improved the efficiency of design and analyses, allowing for multiple scenarios to be tried in the digital realm before facing reality. And although only a few decades old, the influence of computational mechanics on the programs and funding of the NSF and other federal agencies is “substantial, “says Chong, an NSF program director for 21 years. Over 60,000 NSF active grants of $100,000 or more are currently funding computational mechanics and related research.

At ICES, computational science and engineering is applied to model questions at the forefront of science, from natural and biological phenomena, to medical and industrial research. The aging of the earth, melting of polar ice caps, behavior of storms, hurricanes, water surges, tsunamis, and tornadoes, functions of the cardiovascular system, drug design and cancer research, clean energy production, and resource conservation and exploration are just some of the topics being explored.

Oden’s own research has applied computational science toward predicting treatment outcomes for laser-induced prostate cancer therapy (the laser technique was successful and research has since been passed on to a primarily medical setting at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston). He has also focused on identifying uncertainty in models so researchers can be aware of simulation weaknesses and know where improvements need to be made.

One of Oden’s most important roles, however, is the support and promotion of computational mechanics in its earliest stages—enabling others to apply it to an unlimited number of issues.

In 1964 Oden started working as an assistant professor teaching theoretical mechanics at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. He had just left his job at General Dynamics where he had been analyzing military aircraft by applying the first computer codes using finite elements, a technique that breaks a larger mathematically defined domain into smaller, more solvable subdomains.

It was around this point that Oden says he realized the potential that finite element analysis could have if applied to mechanics in general and not only in industry. Computational mechanics could change the way science was done across all fields.

“It hit me early in my career as an assistant professor: ‘you know what, these [areas] should be pulled together.’ This is a new way to formulate and solve problems that before were thought to be impossible,” said Oden.

With his master’s students, he began applying finite element methods to solve problems in non-linear continuum mechanics, an area of study that focuses on how solids and liquids respond to various forces.

But it was his book Finite Elements of Nonlinear Continua, published in 1972, that served as a major introduction of computational mechanics to the world. It was translated into Russian and Chinese and Japanese. And in a time where physical tests and experiments dominated science, the book served as “ the great evidence,” in Oden’s words, that modeling and simulation could serve an equally important role.

“The opportunity to develop computational models and actually simulate the way complex systems behaved was an enormous eye-opening event. And it changed everything,” said Oden.

As a researcher, mentor, professor, author, and founding director of ICES, Oden has played a key role in globalizing computational science. Evidence of his tireless work surfaces in more personal ways beyond the innumerable professional awards. Not long ago ICES alumnus Alexandre Motta, wrote to Oden:

“…Every now and then I read about some award you received for some accomplishment - but I would like to tell you that, for me, your greatest accomplishment was to be part of this great [ICES] team who changed my life. In your case, not through personal contact, but by making UT-Austin what it is and for the inspiration.”

Written by Monica Kortsha

Posted: March 8, 2017