Some Thoughts Engendered by Hurricane Katrina

October 21, 2005

Talk of the Society
By James Crowley

Our hearts go out to all who were affected by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the surrounding region, especially the dozens of SIAM members who live and work in the area.

As covered in part in the September issue of SIAM News, SIAM held two very successful conferences in New Orleans this July. Those who attended will remember dodging another, much smaller, hurricane to get to the meetings. Only now do we understand the magnitude of our good fortune and the pain of those who suffered losses in the more recent event.

Ralph Smith and Max Gunzburger chaired the organizing committee for one of the July meetings, the Sixth SIAM Conference on Control and Its Applications. The committee had put together an outstanding array of speakers, who highlighted recent advances and applications of control theory. Reports on some of the major themes are planned for upcoming issues of SIAM News.

In parallel with, and at several points intersecting, the control conference was the 2005 SIAM Annual Meeting, for which Tim Kelley and Lisa Fauci co-chaired the organizing committee. In an article beginning on this page, Barry Cipra reports on Charles Taylor's invited talk, which not only got the meeting off to a great start but also became a leitmotif of both meetings, referred to again and again by subsequent speakers.

As a member of the faculty of Tulane University, Lisa Fauci was well aware of the risks posed by hurricanes to the city of New Orleans. She kept a close watch on the storm track as the date of the meeting drew near. We hope that she and the other members of our community who were forced to leave the area will be able to return to their homes soon.

At their meetings in New Orleans, the SIAM Board of Trustees and the Council expressed their appreciation to both sets of organizers for a job well done.


As it happens, hurricanes are the subject of a recent paper in applied mathematics that (as it happens all too rarely) came to the attention of a wider audience. Shortly before Katrina struck, "A Note Concerning the Lighthill ‘Sandwich Model' of Tropical Cyclones," by Alexandre Chorin, G.I Barenblatt, and V.M. Protokishin, appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (August 9, Vol. 102, 11148–11150). In the paper, the authors propose an explanation for the ability of hurricanes to develop high wind speeds.

The Barenblatt–Chorin–Protokishin paper builds on a layered model of tropical cyclones, attributed to Sir James Lighthill, that interposes between the sea surface and the air a layer containing suspended droplets of sea spray. Whereas Lighthill focused on the thermodynamics of this layer, Barenblatt, Chorin, and Protokishin analyze the effect of the suspended droplets on the balance of turbulent energy. The models they developed show that the presence of large water droplets in the spray leads to a significant reduction of turbulence and, consequently, a marked increase in flow acceleration. Katrina, with wind speeds reaching 140 mph at landfall, clearly comes to mind.

The timely and intriguing PNAS paper is but one example of results in applied mathematics and computing that can have considerable impact on our understanding of physical phenomena, or of economic or social conditions. Beyond technical conferences and an occasional SIAM News article, few such results receive much attention; almost none appear before a scientific audience as broad as that reached by the Barenblatt–Chorin–Protokishin paper (which was also featured in Science News Online,, August 6, 2005). This is a reflection in part of the mathematical sciences community, and the way we carry out our research and communicate the results, and in part of the limited receptivity of the general public and policy makers to scientific details. Certainly, much of the vulnerability of New Orleans and much of the devastation wrought by Katrina in the region had been predicted in the scientific and engineering literature.


The mathematical sciences community does not place a high value on work done to make the public aware of advances and contributions of our discipline. A closely related phenomenon is the community's approach to major prizes and recognition for those who have done excellent work. SIAM awards several major prizes; some of this year's recipients are pictured in this issue of SIAM News. To ensure that we continue to honor the most outstanding work possible, we regularly seek nominations for our prizes.

In addition, we encourage the community to submit nominations for major prizes awarded by other national and international organizations. An example on my mind now is the U.S. National Medal of Science. For that widely recognized prize, the category of greatest interest to our community combines the mathematical sciences and computer science; even so, I understand that the number of nominations received is smaller than for other (stand-alone) disciplines.

If applied mathematics and computing are to receive the attention (and, it follows, the funding) they deserve, members of the community need to do their share--highlighting notable advances in the field and significant applications resulting from those advances and--yes--working to secure recognition for the individuals who have done the work.

I encourage readers to take a look at the information about SIAM prizes posted on our Web site ( and then take the next step: If you know of a worthy recipient for one of the prizes, nominate that person. Information about the National Medal of Science, also readily accessible, can be found at; in that case nominations must be made before November 30, 2005.

It takes time and thought to put together an effective nomination package, but the payoff can be great. By honoring members of the community who have done outstanding work, we help make the rest of the scientific community aware of the contributions of our community and discipline.


If you took my suggestion and sought out information on the SIAM prizes, you will have noticed that our entire Web site has undergone significant changes. The feedback we've received to date has been highly positive, and we're always interested in hearing from others. If you haven't visited recently, go to and then let us know what you think.

We have also improved our online membership renewal process. If you're a SIAM member, you can now download a PDF copy of your personal invoice (which some institutions require for the reimbursement of membership dues). See

This seems to be a good place to mention that this fall's SIAM election, like last year's, is Web-based, although we continue to make paper ballots available to those who request them. For information about the voting process, see

These improvements are part of our response to a clear call from the membership, via the rather extensive online survey we conducted in the spring, to receive more information electronically. Of the 5400 members asked to complete the survey, 1385 (26%) responded--a remarkable result.

Respondents generally expressed satisfaction with SIAM products and services, including journals, books, conferences, and SIAM News. Some activities, like short courses, were shown to be in need of some attention. In general, we received many excellent suggestions and heard of members' concerns as well. The latter came from several corners of SIAM, including industry.

The survey results were compiled and presented at the annual SIAM Business Meeting (held in New Orleans), and were also presented in greater detail to the SIAM Board and Council. Every comment submitted by a member through the survey, in fact, was conveyed to the Board and Council, which agreed to form a committee that will look into respondents' concerns and suggestions; the committee's findings should be ready for next summer's meetings of the Board and Council.

Meanwhile, many thanks to the many members who took the time to provide thoughtful and useful responses to the survey.

Look for additional coverage of the New Orleans meetings in upcoming issues of SIAM News, and watch this space for a report on the discussions of the SIAM Board of Trustees and Council.

Emmanuel J. Candès of the California Institute of Technology accepted the James H. Wilkinson Prize in Numerical Analysis and Scientific Computing from SIAM president Martin Golubitsky in New Orleans. Candès was honored for "his outstanding theoretical and practical contributions to computational harmonic analysis and image processing. This includes the development of ridgelets, curvelets, chirplets, and random projections, the convergence analysis of these methods and their applications." Candès gave a prize lecture titled "Uncertainty Principles and Signal Recovery from Incoherent and Incomplete Measurements."

Present at the awards luncheon in New Orleans were two recipients of the 2005 SIAM Outstanding Paper Prizes: Karen Braman (South Dakota School of Mines) and Ralph Byers (University of Kansas), co-authors, with Roy Mathias (College of William & Mary; not pictured), of "The Multishift QR Algorithm. Part II: Aggressive Early Deflation"; the paper appeared in SIAM Journal on Matrix Analysis and Applications, Vol. 23, No. 4, 2002. Also announced in New Orleans were paper prizes to Adrian Lewis (Cornell University), "Active Sets, Nonsmoothness, and Sensitivity," SIAM Journal on Optimization, Vol. 13, No. 3, 2002, and Uriel Feige (Weizmann Institute of Science) and Robert Krauthgamer (IBM Almaden Research Center), "A Polylogarithmic Approximation of the Minimum Bisection," SIAM Journal on Computing, Vol. 31, No. 4, 2002.

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