Michael Kassner, chair of the USC Viterbi School’s department of aerospace and mechanical engineering, welcomed one of the legendary figures in contemporary engineering to an overflow crowd Feb. 1.
Rudolf E. Kalman did not disappoint, charging that a fair amount of contemporary physics and engineering fall significantly short of the standards set by Sir Isaac Newton 325 years ago.
Kalman, inventor of a key analytic technique with applications throughout engineering, offered an intriguing case study of how a seemingly transparent mathematical strategy could contain hidden flaws not revealed for a half-century after its introduction.
Kalman, a professor emeritus at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Z�rich spoke on “The Newtonian Revolution: Interaction of Mathematics and High Technology,” sponsored by AME, the third event in the USC Viterbi School’s Centennial Lecture Series.
Kalman created the Kalman filter, which USC professor Firdaus Udwadia, in his introduction, called “perhaps the single-most widely used mathematical technique of the last half-century.”
The filter allows engineers to make the best of noisy and incomplete measurements by systematically analyzing the readings to decide which might be consistent with a real state of affairs, and which can be discarded as bogus.
It is now used, Udwadia said, “in all fields of engineering, and we would never have been able to reach the moon without it.”
Kalman’s speech was delivered in two 45-minute parts, with a break, beginning with a long and admiring portrait of the extraordinary achievement of Newton who, in Kalman’s view, had rescued celestial mechanics from “cookbook” empiricism by creating an absolutely rigorous mathematical foundation that explained the movements of planets.
As part of this, Kalman said that Newton’s interest was a matter of understanding, not simple prediction.
“He was 100 percent interested in research,” but the research could only turn into knowledge by mathematics. “Science proceeds by mathematics,” Kalman said. The process, building on previous work by Johannes Kepler (“Kepler guessed; Newton proved”), required 20 years for completion.