Thomas J.R. Hughes

„Success is a journey, and not a destination.“ May I follow these words to shed some light into the so impressive journey of our Wilhelm Exner medalist 2014.

Thomas Hughes was born in New York. With a M.E. degree from Pratt Institute in New York back in 1967 he quickly learned to appreciate Galileio Galilei´s perception that „the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics“. And as a consequence his strong abilities and inclination to mathematics made him go West to join the University of California at Berkeley to study mathematics and, in parallel, to devote himself to his Ph.D. studies in engineering science, which he both completed in 1974.

Thomas Hughes´s very successful scientific life is indeed a journey and not just a destination: Immediately he joined Caltech at Pasadena, where he became Associate Professor for structural mechanics. And the next sector of his journey brought him back to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1980 by being appointed by Stanford University where he served as a full professor for mechanical engineering for 13 years. And finally, in 2002 he was appointed by the University of Austin, Texas, as Professor for Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, where he is still holding the Chair for Computational and Applied Mechanics.

Describing his scientific playground is both easy and hard at the same time: it is easy when it comes to explain his strong scientific plattform, and it is hard if one has to highlight all his numerous highlights sitting on that stable plattform.

His scientific background is Mathematics and Engineering, and both mathematics and engineering represent a very stable plattform for scientific as well as for application oriented activities. And through his research he has become a worldwide known shining star in computer simulation of technical and biomedical processes alike. But ideas don´t drop from the sky, and therefore, he has been working very hard and for quite some time he had to realize that the illusion of progress is short but exciting. However, he has always been following Louis Pasteur, at least implicitly, when he let us know that “fortune prefers the prepared mind“.

In particular Prof. Hughes has elaborated by a sort of „tour de force“ the theoretical foundations for so-called „iso-geometric computations“. What´s that?

Today structures in general and complex ones in particular are being designed on the computer. They are purely geometric and represent surfaces which, after being color-coded and rendered, provide beautiful images of an object. But an object is not just geometry, it has also physical properties such as stiffness or elasticity, temperature, pressure and the like. As an example you may consider our planet Earth as such a body, or even the comet Tschuri that is being visited recently by the Rosetta mission of ESA and its lander Philae.

And in order to investigate the physical structure and properties of such a complex body that changes with time, so-called „finite element methods“ are being used. And therefore, CAD and FEM have to talk to each other which requires a laborious translation if they talk different languages. And when it comes to analyze the temporal behaviour of an object, such a translation is required for each individual instant of time.

Iso-geometric computations avoid this shortcoming and are very fast and powerful alike. They use so-called complex NURBS („non-uniform rational B-splines“) as the foundation of contemporary CAD packages and FEM alike. These splines, being mathematical base functions, are indeed very powerful and suggest themselves if it comes to mathematically model complex geometric and physical structures down to very fine levels of detail without jeopardizing the convergence of the solution. Obviously NURBS represent the moment where perfect theory meets perfect realization.

The application of NURBS in context with computer simulation is almost unlimited and so is Prof. Hughes´ scientific bandwith. It literally spans from the domain of mechanical engineering to pure medical investigations with aerospace applications sandwiched in between: Piezo-electric vibration. acoustic response due to hydrodynamic sources, blood-flow in arteries or vascular deposition pattern of nanoparticles that are injected by a catheter in an inflamed arterial tree, just to give some examples.

By covering such a huge thematic bandwidth of possible applications, Prof. Hughes has authored about 250 scientific publications in top journals, and is the author of 15 scientific books. Both his publications and books enjoy an outstanding citation rate of almost 60.000 which translate into an h-index of an absolutely impressive number: 106. With this citation rate he is among the 15 most cited authors in “Scientific Computing” and one out of the 100 most cited authors in engineering sciences worldwide.

Ladies and gentlemen, the key of a university is not patenting, it is research and knowledge transfer through our students. In this sense Prof. Hughes has influenced generations of students by confronting them with the forefront of science and application and by making them aware that only top achievements define the quality standard. As an academic teacher he is investigating his time today in talents for tomorrow.

But it is not just scientific achievements that make Prof. Hughes worldwide prominent. He has always been strictly following President Roosevelt´s recommendation, namely “Keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground” and is therefore persistently transforming his scientific achievements into useful products for the benefit of industry and our society alike. And we share with him the conviction that creativity and innovation make up the driving engine of success. Prof. Hughes is counting more than 40 entries as a consultant engineer and is closely cooperating with numerous industrial partners, both with large industries and SME´s alike, exactly in the sense of Wilhelm Exner.

Prof. Hughes is actively involved in numerous international scientific bodies, including the research committee of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. He has received a huge number of national as well as international recognitions such as the Grand Prize of the Society for Computational Engineering and Science of Japan or the Research Award of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

To make a long story short, Prof. Hughes is a shining example for a brilliant scientific career, for worldwide cooperation and for transforming his scientific achievements into powerful products that are strongly demanded by industry and by our society alike. Therefore, the Wilhelm Exner Foundation is thankful to you, Prof. Hughes, for accepting the medal and is proud of having you in her list of fame. Because it is not the title (or the medal) that makes a person shine; it is the person that makes a medal glitter. (Prof. Hughes, I am still wondering if you know how much incense a man is able to bear. - Sie wissen nicht, wie viel Weihrauch ein Mensch ertragen kann.)

Prof. Hughes, we congratulate you to your impressive performance over so many decades and we are glad to cordially welcome you as the winner of the Wilhelm Exner Medal 2014.

Laudation by Prof. Dr. Hans Sünkel,
President of Wilhelm Exner Medaillen Stiftung
Past President, Graz University of Technology, Austria