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Remembering Professor Joseph Keller

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Joseph Bishop Keller, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics and Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University, former Professor of Applied Mathematics at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, 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. Joe’s passing was peaceful and he did not suffer any pain.

Known for his remarkable breadth in the physical sciences, the life sciences and engineering, Joe Keller demonstrated the significant impact of mathematics in understanding scientific phenomena and creating solutions for engineering problems. Considered by many as the “Dean of Applied Mathematics,” Keller was best known for his geometrical theory of diffraction, a seminal method for determining how acoustic or electromagnetic waves are deflected by the surface of an object. This had broad applications to radar, stealth technology and antenna design, and has become 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 more than half a century ago.

Joe was an incredible contributor to applied mathematics at Stanford and worldwide. 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 Brook Haven, NY, as well as ten grandchildren and step-grandchildren, and several nieces and nephews.

There will be a memorial in October. ICME will have a remembrance for him as well at the start of the academic year.