Chorin named University Professor

By Robert Sanders, Public Affairs


Alexandre Chorin

University Professor Alexandre Chorin
Peg Skorpinski photo

14 February 2002 | Mathematician Alexandre Chorin has just added one of the UC system’s most prestigious titles — University Professor — to his curriculum vitae, but he doesn’t expect the new honor to bring big changes to his life.

Considered one of the great applied mathematicians of our time, Chorin already travels widely to speak and to teach. He expects to continue to do so among UC’s ten campuses.

“You’re supposed to go around and talk to people on other campuses, but I do that anyway,” said Chorin, a senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley Lab.

The title of University Professor is reserved for scholars of international distinction who are also exceptional teachers. The goal is to share their talents with all the UC campuses. Only 22 UC faculty have received the honor, nine of them from Berkeley.

“His impact has been enormous in both mathematics and teaching,” said Calvin Moore, professor and chair of mathematics in the College of Letters and Science. “He has trained a whole generation of applied mathematicians.”

Chorin and UC San Diego Professor Shu Chien were appointed the newest University Professors by the UC Board of Regents last month.

A native of Poland, Chorin, 63, grew up in Israel and Switzerland. He made his way to New York in 1962 and eventually to Berkeley in 1971. He specializes in scientific computing, numerical analysis and computational methods of statistical mechanics. But his true love is turbulence — the chaotic eddies and currents in any fluid that are hard to study experimentally and harder still to calculate mathematically.

“I’m very interested in turbulence, but turbulence is a very hard field. If you work ten years and get something small, it’s big progress,” Chorin said. “You really have to have knowledge in lots of other fields, and you have to do other things also if you ever are going to get satisfaction.”

A recent source of pride involved collaboration with Math Professor Grigory Barenblatt, on a flaw in the method commonly used to approximate the force exerted on a wall or surface by turbulent flow.

A second area of research today involves computations that are incomplete.

“There are lots of problems where you have no hope of doing a complete calculation,” he said. “There is too much complexity or too many unknowns, or you are not certain of what the equations are, or the problems have intrinsic uncertainty. Turbulence is one of them. The project I am working on is, suppose the calculations you can do are limited, what’s the best you can say? What conclusions can you legitimately draw from it?”

Early in his career, Chorin developed computational methods and computer software that were used widely in the aircraft industry to model air flow over airplane wings. The general techniques are still employed, though Chorin moved on to apply his methods to a large variety of fields – among them combustion, water flow in oceans and lakes, and flow in the heart and veins.

Two years ago, the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics and the American Mathematical Society honored Chorin with the 2000 Norbert Wiener Prize, one of the highest distinctions in applied mathematics.

Chorin obtained his Ph.D. from New York University in 1966. After a year at Berkeley as a visiting professor in 1971-72, he decided to stay. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Among his honors is the National Academy of Sciences’ Award in applied mathematics and numerical analysis.

He currently directs the campus’s Center for Pure and Applied Mathematics.


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