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Victor G. Szebehely (1921–1997)

Published onDec 01, 1998
Victor G. Szebehely (1921–1997)

John Irwin Slide Collection

AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

Victor G. Szebehely, who held the Richard B. Curran Centennial Chair in Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, died at his home on September 13, 1997, from cancer.

Born in Budapest, Hungary on August 21, 1921, Victor Szebehely received an ME degree from the University of Budapest in 1943 and his PhD in Engineering in 1946. His dissertation was on the famous mathematical problem of the motion of three bodies under their mutual gravitation, a subject that he researched and wrote about extensively throughout his career. In 1947 he came to the United States and became a citizen in 1954. His affiliations here included teaching and research positions at Penn State University, Virginia State University, US Navy Model Basin, General Electric Co., University of Maryland, George Washington University, Yale University, and the University of Texas at Austin. His research included ship dynamics, celestial mechanics, and space flight.

The launch of the first artificial satellite by the USSR in 1957 and the introduction of high-speed digital computing opened up the whole field of celestial mechanics again after its apparent exhaustion by the mathematicians of the 19th century. Prof. Dirk Brouwer of Yale, a foremost celestial mechanician, realized that there would be a need for people trained in this field to satisfy the burgeoning space effort and, in 1959, started the first of a series of Summer Institutes in Dynamical Astronomy. The avowed purpose of these institutes was to reacquaint astronomers, physicists, and mathematicians (researchers, teachers, and graduate students) with the modem techniques of orbital mechanics. In 1962, Brouwer augmented this program with his annual Seminars on Current Problems in Celestial Mechanics. These meetings were for the exchange of information on current research within the US and to coordinate future efforts. Szebehely was a lecturer in the early Summer Institutes and from 1962 cooperated with the Yale faculty in organizing both the summer institutes and the annual seminars. He took on the responsibility for coordinating both programs after Brouwer's death in 1966. Under his aegis, the semininars grew in size, and Szebehely established his reputation as the outstanding expert in the three body problem. The 8th annual seminar in 1970 was the last one, since its function was effectively taken over by the newly-formed Division on Dynamical Astronomy of the American Astronomical Society.

Szebehely then turned his attention to fostering close cooperation world wide in the fields of dynamical astronomy and celestial mechanics. In the following years, he organized NATO-sponsored meetings in Europe, mainly at Cortina d' Ampezzo, Italy, and, as a consequence, his circle of colleagues and friends grew even larger. He was highly regarded as a teacher and for the helpful and patient guidance given his students, including 20 MS candidates and 27 PhD thesis students. Most of them pursued careers in engineering, but at least a handful, including E. Myles Standish, Frederick Peters, Khalil Zare, Peter Halamek, and Arthur Whipple are AAS members. Szebehely was the author or co-author of 18 books, among them The Theory of Orbits (1967) and Adventures in Celestial Mechanics (1989), as well as more than 220 journal articles.

Szebehely was widely recognized and honored for his contributions to science. He was knighted in 1956 by Queen Juliana of The Netherlands for technical contributions. He was the first, 1978, recipient of the Dirk Brouwer Award of the Division on Dynamical Astronomy. He was elected to the US National Academy of Engineering in 1982 and was elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 1984. He received the Vanderlinden Award of the Belgian Royal Academy for scientific achievements in 1987 and an honorary doctorate from Eötvös University of Budapest in 1991. In 1997, shortly before his death, he received an international award for his work from the Accademia Nazionale del Lincei in Rome, Italy.

For recreation, Victor liked to sail his boat on Lake Travis, west of Austin; and he was an accomplished sailor, with his wife Jo Betsy as crew. He enjoyed the company of friends and colleagues and liked a good joke, especially one at the expense of Texas A&M. During the last few years of his life, he kept the precarious state of his health secret from almost everyone, and the news of his death therefore came as a shock to his many friends and associates. His survivors include his wife, Jo Betsy Szebehely, of Austin, and his daughter, Julia Agnes Szebehely, of Webster, Texas.

Photo (available in PDF version) courtesy of Timothy Valdez.

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