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In memoriam: Ali Nayfeh, University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of nonlinear dynamics

March 30, 2017

Ali Nayfeh
Ali Nayfeh

Ali Nayfeh, a University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Virginia Tech’s Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics, died unexpectedly on March 27. He was 83.

“The loss of Ali is one deeply felt by us at Virginia Tech and beyond,” said G. Don Taylor, the Charles O. Gordon Professor and interim dean of the College of Engineering. “Ali was a brilliant, internationally-known leader in his field and an extraordinary teacher in the classroom. He leaves behind an immense legacy and we will truly miss him.”

Born in Shuwaikah in Palestine on Dec. 21, 1933, Nayfeh was a world-renowned scholar, teacher, and researcher in the field of nonlinear dynamics.

Nayfeh was the 2014 recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Mechanical Engineering — an award once won by the likes of Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Orville Wright, Marie and Pierre Curie, and Jane Goodall — for developing novel methods to model complex engineering systems in structural dynamics, acoustics, fluid mechanics, and electromechanical systems.

Nayfeh's interest in ship dynamics was stimulated during his graduate student days in 1963, when a friend who was doing research in this area asked Nayfeh to help him with a mathematical problem. Nayfeh recognized that the principles of mathematics and physics could be applied to that problem. He became more intrigued and devoted his life to advancing the field.

"The story of his life is very inspirational,” said Muhammad Hajj, the J. Byron Maupin Professor of Engineering in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics at Virginia Tech. “Although he had many reasons to fail, he was not only able to succeed but to positively influence the lives of many others.”

Nayfeh joined the Virginia Tech community in 1971. Over the course of his 37 years of teaching, Nayfeh advised 69 doctoral candidates to completion. He wrote 10 books, some of which are translated into Russian and Chinese, published over 400 articles in referred journals, and gave over 530 presentations at national and international conferences.

From 1980 to 1984, Nayfeh took a leave of absence to establish an engineering college at Yarmouk University, 45 miles north of Amman, the capital of Jordan. He served as engineering dean of the college, and as vice-president for engineering affairs at the university.

His Wiley textbooks entitled “Perturbation Methods,” published in 1973, and “Introduction to Perturbation Techniques,” published in 1981, have been considered worldwide as premier reference texts on asymptotic methods over the past four decades and have been translated into other languages. In 1981, Nayfeh was awarded the Kuwait Prize in Basic Sciences.

Nayfeh is the founder of the two prestigious journals: Nonlinear Dynamics and the Journal of Vibration and Control. Nonlinear Dynamics grew from four issues a year in 1990 to 16 issues a year. The Journal of Vibration and Control grew from 640 pages a year in 1995 to some 1,500 pages per year. He also served as the editor of the Nonlinear Science Book Series, published by J. Wiley-Interscience.

Nayfeh organized a number of conferences, including the Seventh International Symposium on Nonlinear Acoustics and 12 conferences on Nonlinear Vibrations, Stability, and Dynamics of Structures at Virginia Tech. They became top meetings in the field in the U.S., and with the relevant international scientific community.

In 2005, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers honored Nayfeh for his lifelong contributions to the field of nonlinear dynamics. Nayfeh, who directed more than $25 million in engineering research, received its inaugural Lyapunov Award. Also in 2005, he earned Virginia’s Life Achievement Award in Science.

In 2008, Nayfeh received the Academy Gold Medal of Honor from the Academy of Transdisciplinary Learning and Advanced Studies. That same year, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers named him the first recipient of its Tom Caughey Award.

Nayfeh was a Fellow of five societies: the American Academy of Mechanics, the American Society of Mechanical Engineering, the American Physical Society, the Academy of Transdisciplinary Learning and Advanced Studies, and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

The AIAA awarded him the Pendray Aerospace Literature Award in 1995 for his seminal contributions to perturbation methods, nonlinear dynamics, acoustics, and boundary-layer transition. The ASME also recognized him with two awards: the ASME J. P. Den Hartog Award in 1996 in recognition of lifetime contributions to the teaching and practice of vibration engineering and the ASME Lyapunov Award in 2004 for lifelong contributions to nonlinear dynamics.

Nayfeh earned all three of his academic degrees in four and a half years at Stanford University: a bachelor’s degree in engineering science in 1962, a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in aeronautics and astronautics in 1963 and in 1964, respectively.

Nayfeh held three honorary doctorates from the Politechnika Szczecinska of Poland, the Technical University of Munich, Germany, and the marine technical University of St. Petersburg, Russia.

Written by Erica Corder