Ronald Probstein *50 *52 wins Pendray Aerospace Literature Award
RONALD F. PROBSTEIN *50 *52 For those who attended AIAA ASM, you learned that Prof. Ronnie Probstein *50 *52 of MIT received the Pendray Aerospace Literature award at Tuesday's lunch banquet.
Probstein graduated from Princeton's MAE department in 1952, stayed on as an assistant professor until 1954, then moved to Brown University and MIT (in 1962). He was instrumental in organizing the first few ASMs. He is truly an amazing scientist, for the depth and breadth of his contributions, and an interesting individual (read his book: "Honest Sid: Memoir of a Gambling Man".)
Ronald F. Probstein, one of America’s foremost engineering scientists, is Ford Professor of Engineering, Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has played a principal role in some of the most important scientific and technical achievements in the post World War II era, including spacecraft and ballistic missile reentry physics and design, hypersonic flight theory, comet behavior, desalination, and synthetic fuels.
His doctoral thesis at Princeton University on hypersonic flows, for which the flow speeds are far greater than the speed of sound, defined the strong effect that the viscosity of the fluid has on the behavior of such flows. The parameter defining the magnitude of this effect is attributed to Probstein and is known as the hypersonic viscous interaction parameter. Subsequently he defined the effects or flow rarefaction occurring at high altitudes. Together with Wallace Hayes he wrote a book in 1959 and a second edition in 1966 on hypersonic flow theory, which was reprinted in 2004 and remains the principal source of basic information on the subject. He applied and generalized his theoretical developments to the design of early American spacecraft and ballistic missiles to enable their reentry into the earth’s atmosphere without destruction from the high temperatures generated by their hypersonic speeds.
Recognizing the limitations of America’s rockets after President Kennedy defined the goal of going to the Moon he met with Vice-President Lyndon Johnson in an effort to convince him that the direct launch approach being pursued by NASA was not feasible and that Earth-orbit Rendezvous would provide the quickest rout to success. Johnson immediately called James Webb the Administrator of NASA and asked him to meet with Probstein forthwith. On walking in to the meeting Webb’s angry response was “What gave you the right to talk to the Vice-President. I have 19,200 people working for me and they can tell me what to do.” Shortly thereafter NASA did change its design from direct launch to moon-orbit rendezvous, which represented a compromise with earth-orbit rendezvous requiring somewhat larger engines but doable unlike direct launch.
Building upon some aspects of his earlier work in the late 1960s he developed together with his student Michael Finson a theory that predicted the appearance of the fan-shaped tails that appear behind dusty comets. The tails are made up of particles of dust that are dragged out from the surface by vapor generated when the comet in its orbit around the Earth gets close enough to the Sun to be heated by its rays. His work is today the accepted theory for dust comet behavior, overturning an earlier theory that had been accepted for more than a hundred years.
In the early 1970s, recognizing the critical shortage of potable water in many places of the world Prof. Probstein turned his attention to the desalination of salt water and purification of contaminated water. For over fifteen years he investigated membrane, freezing, and fine particle separation sciences and process applications. His work included the finding of how contaminants in water foul membranes; the development of a process licensed to industry for freezing salty water that separates the resulting pure ice crystals from the salt; and from his theoretical work the discovery of a new mode by which particles separate from water under gravity that enabled a new and very much faster method of small particle separation from water.
In the 1970s when the Arab oil embargo gripped the United States, while at MIT he formed the small consulting firm Water Purification Associates to deal with methods for cleaning up the huge quantities of contaminated water emitted by synthetic fuel and power plants and to provide solutions to minimize the amount of water used. This work led him directly into studying the fundamental chemical and physical principles associated with converting coal, biomass, oil shale and tar sands to clean liquid and gaseous fuels. In 1982 together with Edwin Hicks he published “Synthetic Fuels” as a unified and coherent subject. It is the first and still the only book providing the underlying principles and possible means for producing fuels to replace natural ones. The book was widely acclaimed at the time of its publication and still has broad interest, so much so, that it was reprinted in 2006 to bring the material covered to new generations of scientists and engineers engaged in some of the country’s leading edge technical programs. It has been reported to be the largest selling book ever produced by the well-known classic book publisher that reprinted it. He presently serves on the Committee on America’s Energy Future of the National Research Council.
As environmental problems became paramount in the 1990s he became concerned with the means for cleaning up contaminated soil and based on applying the fundamental concepts of electrokinetics, wherein the application of electric fields can move fluids and contaminants through small pores, he introduced the concept of electrokinetic soil remediation. His basic procedure was patented and licensed to an industrial firm for further development and today the subject has become one that is widely studied and applied worldwide. The scientific basis is outlined in his book on “Physicochemical Hydrodynamics”, which is a discipline concerned with the interaction between fluid flow and physical, chemical, and biochemical processes. This discipline underlies much of Probstein’s scientific work throughout his life. The topic is now becoming an established subject of science and the book after going through a second edition in 1994 was reissued in paperback in 2003.
For his achievements, he has been honored by election to the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the International Academy of Astronautics, and awarded an honorary doctorate from Brown University. He has received many awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship and has been elected a Fellow of numerous engineering and scientific societies. He has produced 10 technical books, 6 patents, about 150 technical papers, and 1 non-technical book for general readers published in 2009.
Professor Probstein was born on March 11, 1928 in New York City and in his young years was raised in Times Square where his father Sidney plied his trade as a bookmaker and ticket scalper. He graduated from Stuyvesant High School in New York City and went to study engineering at New York University’s night school, while at the same time working during the day for the world-renowned mathematician Richard Courant. Because of the influx of students following WWII, at the recommendation of Courant he was appointed an Instructor of Engineering Mechanics at the age of eighteen while he was still pursuing his undergraduate degree. He was then the youngest Instructor ever appointed at the University. After graduating he went to graduate school at Princeton University to study Physics but because his thesis advisor was in Aeronautical Engineering it was suggested he switch departments. In 1952 he received the first Ph.D. from the Department of Aeronautical Engineering. He served on the faculty of the department for two years as an Assistant Professor but felt the need to leave because he did not wish to remain where he received his doctorate. In 1954 he accepted a joint appointment at Brown University in the Division of Applied Mathematics and Division of Engineering and was given tenure two years later becoming the youngest person to have been awarded tenure by the university. He accepted a position as a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT in 1962 and remained there becoming Ford Professor of Engineering until his retirement in 1996 when he became Emeritus.
He was married on July 30, 1950 to Irene Weindling and they live in Brookline, Massachusetts. They have one son Sidney Charles Probstein and three grandchildren all of Brookline.