Skip to content
For WHOI personnel, vendors, and visitors: COVID-19 Guidelines

Edward Spiegel

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution announces with great sorrow the death of Edward Spiegel on January 2, 2020.  He was a founding member of the summer Geophysical Fluid Dynamics (GFD) program. He was 88.

Edward was a member of the GFD program upon its founding in 1959 and until his death. He was also a guest investigator in the Physical Oceanography Department during those years.

Edward spent every summer in Woods Hole teaching, adding an “interdisciplinary flavor” to the primarily oceanographic classes that were offered, said Phil Yecko, a physics professor at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. The program has become an international training ground for scientists.

“He was really well known as someone who knew fluid dynamics,” Yecko said, “and who was an excellent mathematician.”

Spiegel, who died January 2, grew up in the South Bronx and graduated from DeWitt-Clinton High School in 1948. He completed his undergraduate studies at UCLA and attended the University of Michigan for his Ph.D., where he met his future wife, Barbara.

He and Barbara would find a home in Falmouth, spending every summer here.

“He thinks of that very much as his home, especially in his personal life,” said Yecko, who was Spiegel’s Ph.D. student in the 1990s at Columbia University and remained friends with him.

Spiegel then went on to teach astronomy at University of California Berkeley before continuing his research at Princeton University. He later moved to the Courant Institute and joined the New York University physics faculty in 1965 before coming to Columbia University.

As a professor, he gained a reputation among his students for his amusing stories of meeting other famous scientists such as Paul Dirac and Stephen Hawking.

Spiegel focused on the instabilities in fluid flow, such as the patterns of oil and water when mixed together. In his decades of research, he also mastered vortices. He studied magnetic storms on the sun, which have a lot of vortex motion, said Alan Wolf, a physics professor at Cooper Union who knew Spiegel for 30 years.

But perhaps his crowning achievement in his half century of scientific pursuits was his breakthrough with chaos theory, which made him a leader in the fields of mathematics and physics. Despite his standing, he rarely mentioned the achievement.

The invention of chaos theory is credited to mathematician Edward Lorenz, but Spiegel discovered it simultaneously, Yecko said. If Spiegel were not a perfectionist who took his time on his paper, Yecko said, he could have been credited as the inventor.

“He was the first person to discover that chaos could arise from differential equations, which is a big deal,” said Wolf, who likened the discovery of chaos to the finding of quantum mechanics or the theory of relativity.

Chaos theory states that simple equations can lead to complex, or erratic, solutions.

“Even very simple equations like for fluids of chemical oscillations could give rise to random, crazy looking output,” Wolf said. “This is a total change of Newton’s Newtonian world view … For centuries, it was thought that if you had simple equations, you would get simple solutions. But things are much more complicated.”

The discoveries of quantum mechanics and relativity were huge breakthroughs, Wolf said, but those don’t affect day-to-day life.

Wolf noted that “chaos is everywhere,” and that chaos theory can be applied to biology, psychology, investments, human interactions and anything that can be controlled by math.

Spiegel also can be credited for coining the term “blazar,” an astrophysical phenomenon that produces bright emissions, or a jet, from active galactic nuclei.

Although he sat at the same table with the top mathematicians and physicists in his fields, Spiegel was well-versed in topics beyond the sciences.

“He could discuss the most intricate aspects of dancing,” Wolf said. “He was an incredible food and wine expert. He was a collector of African art. It’s not common to see somebody who has such diverse skills in addition to profound talents in mathematics and physics.”

Joseph Pedlosky, a retired oceanographer at WHOI, had been friends with Spiegel for 60 years.

“People have this image of a scientist to be cold and distant,” Pedlosky said. “Ed was a brilliant scientist, and a warm and lovable person. He will be sorely missed. The world would be a much better place if there were more people like him.”

Information for this obituary is from the Cape Cod Times.