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Remembering Professor William O. Criminale

Submitted by Tony I Garcia on October 29, 2020 - 11:30am

By KK Tung, Fred Wan, with contributions from others.

With the dawn of space age came a strong interest in mathematical methods useful in science and engineering, especially in providing graduate students better exposure to mathematics relevant to applications.  In 1969, Dean McCarthy of the Graduate School at the University of Washington asked Professor of Mathematics Victor Klee and Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics Carl Pearson to co-chair a University-wide committee to study the role of Applied Mathematics at the University of Washington and to make appropriate recommendations. The committee members (representing Mathematics, Aeronautics & Astronautics, Electrical Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Oceanography, Atmospheric Sciences, Physics, Chemistry, Statistics and Operations Research) included Professor of Oceanography William O. Criminale among others.  Meanwhile Dean Norris of Engineering had assigned the responsibility for Applied Mathematics in his College to the Department of Aeronautics & Astronautics that resulted in a three-quarter sequence of courses on complex variable, ODE and PDE being streamlined and taught in that department. More advanced graduate courses on advanced PDE and perturbations methods had already been offered regularly by Professor Jerry Kevorkian who had joined that department earlier and was also an active member of the Klee-Pearson committee.

In June, 1970, the Pearson-Klee Committee submitted a report to Dean McCarthy recommending the establishment of degree programs in Applied Mathematics. After consulting with his fellow deans, Dean McCarthy accepted this recommendation and re-constituted the same committee now chaired by Professor Pearson to prepare a formal request to the Administration to establish new graduate degree programs in applied mathematics. The formal request was submitted shortly thereafter; but it took several years and persistent effort by the Pearson Committee to persuade the various State entities to approve the Pearson Committee recommendation. In 1976, the Board of Regents granted provisional authority (and formal Group status) to the group of Applied Mathematics faculty to offer graduate programs in Applied Mathematics and Professor Criminale was elected by the Group members to serve as the Chair to organize, establish and administer these newly authorized programs.

As Chair, Professor Criminale worked diligently to organize the group of faculty, to set up an industrial liaison program, and to meet with other departments in order to encourage their use of our courses for their students. He also arranged with NSF and with local industry to get the program off to an auspicious start by inviting Sir James Lighthill to give a series of lectures to about 100 invited West Coast scientists.

The program was under provisional status for five years. A formal review of the program was conducted in 1981 by a review committee made up of UW faculty and three outside members (Julian Cole of Caltech, Hans Weinberger of the University of Minnesota and Leonard Berkovitz of Purdue University). With well-prepared documentation and presentations orchestrated by Professor Criminale, the external review committee’s report to the University was generally favorable for granting the degree programs permanent status. The Board of Regents responded by upgrading the Applied Mathematics unit from a Group to a Program with its own budget within the Graduate School in June 1982.  In so doing, the Board effectively conferred to the Applied Mathematics Program the sole authority to grant degrees in Applied Mathematics. 

That it took nearly six years (1970-76) for the University’s Board of Regents to grant a term approval for the Pearson Committee’s proposal to establish degree programs in Applied Mathematics spoke volumes about the administrative obstacles to be overcome during the approval process. As noted by Professor Jerry Kevorkian, an original Klee-Pearson Committee member and a mainstay of the Applied Mathematics Group, Professor Criminale’s dedicated assistance and fervent support were most critical to the work of the Pearson Committee in accomplishing its task successfully. 

During the subsequent years as Chair of the Applied Mathematics Program, Professor Criminale laid the foundation for the degree programs in Applied Mathematics and developed them to such high quality that they would meet the approval of the University Review Committee, and to receive a positive recommendation for them to be accorded permanent status. Permission was given for the Program to seek and attain departmental status upon the recruitment of a Chair-designate for the prospective Department.

Professor Criminale was both revered and warmly received by the Program students throughout his years as the Program Chair.  Comments from these students after learning about his passing reflect their warm regards for their dedicated Program steward.  They span the gamut, from brief reflections such as, “I remember Bill was always upbeat and positive. He cared about all the graduate students and was willing to spend time to talk to them”,  to more extensive reflection such as the following three:

  1. “Even as a first-year student, I usually came into the department early around 8:30 am and worked in the small Applied Mathematics Library. Professor Criminale was usually already in his office next door. He would typically come into the Library with his cup of coffee and said “Good Morning”, followed, with a smile, by “You think you are going to make it?” At first, I was a little nervous: Was that a hint that I was not doing well or failing? But after a few more times, I realized that it was his way of making contact and I went along with the conversation. Years later (during the 25th Anniversary Program celebration), I reminded him about those exchanges and we both had a good laugh.”

  2. “I learnt from Bill a great deal about the instability of shear flow and how small disturbances can cause turbulence.  Going water rafting with him felt like a field trip to learn about how turbulence occurs naturally in rivers.  During one trip, our raft hit many patches of disturbance.  We had a good time until I fell out of the raft.  Bill pulled me up from the water and made sure I was safe.  Similarly, he pulled me up many times from falling off the path to progress, working on my dissertation. 

    I went with Bill to NASA Ames in 1990 during his sabbatical.  There, we shared one office.  My most memorable moment was when Bill yelled out, “Go under your desk now!” before he dropped down to hide under his desk.  He felt an earthquake, and I felt dizzy.  It was my first time experiencing an earthquake.  Bill had the right instinct and made sure I was also safe.”

  3. “I came to the AMATH program at UW in 1988.  Although I didn't have the opportunity to take a course from Professor Criminale, I met him frequently in the department lounge and enjoyed every conversation we had together, no matter how brief.  The first impression he gave me was that of a quiet and serious scholar.  It was also remarkable how nice he was to every student. In the beginning, our conversations concentrated on our research, the history of the department etc. and they were casual and short. We finally had a formal conversation during the fourth semester of my studies.  In that semester, I took "Cloud Dynamics" from the Department of Atmospheric Sciences and received a C.  Bill, the graduate coordinator at that time, put a note in my mailbox and asked me to see him in his office. His signature was "BC", I somehow confused this signature with the signature of Chris Bretherton (CB) and Chris was my advisor at that time. After I figured out the initials correctly, Bill and I had a conversation in his office. In that meeting, Bill did not give me a hard time. When he knew that I had difficulty working on "clouds" due to the lack of basic meteorological background, he suggested that I should think about alternative research topics.  He told me that there is no straight path in research and I should explore the best fit for myself. He told me that he did not consider the "C" was a big issue and believed that I could complete my PhD study successfully. His warm words comforted me. I changed my research topic and quickly published my first paper. 

    The study atmosphere in the AMATH department was extremely positive. Professors treated us equally and were our mentors not only academically but also in many other aspects which was particularly impactful for an international student like me. Having attended some other schools, I have to say this kind of learning environment and mentorship was not common.”

Under Program Chair Criminale’s stewardship, the Applied Mathematics Program reported to a committee of Deans, chaired by Dean Richardson of the Graduate School. In 1982, the Program was authorized to recruit a prospective Chair to establish a new Department of Applied Mathematics. Professor Frederic Wan of the University of British Columbia was appointed as Chair designate the following year to prepare and submit a proposal to establish a Department of Applied Mathematics.

When the Chair-designate arrived and served as the Program Graduate Admissions Chair during the first year, Professor Criminale provided his successor all the assistance and support the Chair-designate needed to become familiar with the background, operations and expectation of the University for an application for the Program to become a Department.  With that kind of support, it was relatively straightforward to get a proposal approved by the Board of Regents in July, 1985. Upon hearing the news of Professor Criminale’s passing,  Fred Wan wrote:

“As someone brought in from outside to take over the role of changing a program set up by Pearson and Criminale into a department, Bill was a most supportive individual and helpful colleague to me and my tasks.  He and Ulrike were most gracious in receiving Julia and me into the Applied Mathematics family. For Bill's support and friendship, I am forever grateful.” 

Of the founding members of the Department from the start, Professor Criminale stayed with the Department the longest.  Through his long tenure, he persisted in maintaining the founding principle of the Department, the “application” of mathematics. On many occasions when there were changes proposed in curriculum and Ph.D. degree requirements, Professor Criminale would insist on an “application field” that each of our students must pursue, and that the study of mathematics for its own sake belongs to another department.

Professor Criminale’s research area was in fluid flows and its instability, and in particular on transient instability. His lifetime work in this area was published in 2005 in a 441-page book with his co-workers at NASA Ames, T. L. Jackson and R. D. Joslin, entitled “Theory and Computation in Hydrodynamic Stability”. His colleague and friend, K.K. Tung, remembers first meeting Professor Criminale in a conference on fluid dynamics in early 1980s.  “I am Bill Criminale from the University of Washington.  I am very interested in your work”.  He expressed his interest in Tung’s talk on transient instability and offered him a standing invitation to visit UW.  Later as colleagues in the Department, they often had discussions on the topic, with Tung serving on the PhD committees of Criminale’s two students.

Tung remembers Professor Criminale fondly, of him showing up early to work everyday fresh after running a few miles and showering, chatting before starting the workday, skipping lunch except for a banana, and taking pride in walking and running everywhere without a car. Later pain in his hip curtailed his running. Finally, he succumbed to buying a car, which he seldom drove, except perhaps to Redmond for his dental appointments with Tung’s dentist wife Pat and daughter Jennifer. Professor Criminale enjoyed his dental visits, unlike most patients, as the dentists catered to his taste of office background music---classical, preferably Italian opera.  The whole Tung family misses him greatly, as do most people who got to know him, as a kind soul behind a formal exterior.


 If you would like to add your own memories and recollections of Professor Bill Criminale, feel free to fill out a form located here

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