Yale Bulletin and Calendar

August 30, 2002|Volume 31, Number 1|Two-Week Issue















Robert Apfel: Engineer pioneered use of acoustic waves

Robert E. Apfel
Robert E. Apfel, the Robert E. Higgin Professor of Mechanical Engineering, died on Aug. 1 at age 59.

A longtime Yale faculty member and a noted researcher, Professor Apfel explored how acoustic waves could be used to probe the bulk and surface properties of liquids and biological materials and to manipulate such materials on earth and in space. His experiments on the properties of "surfactants" (materials, such as detergents, that change the surface tension of water droplets) were twice conducted aboard the space shuttle Columbia during the 1990s.

As part of his studies on the tensile strength of liquids, Professor Apfel tested micron-sized drops, whose small volumes could result statistically in a perfectly clean liquid. In order to perform this experiment, he had to develop techniques for "acoustic levitation," a term that he coined for his innovation, which had widespread impact. One of his research articles in Nature found that many liquids could achieve their theoretical strengths.

Professor Apfel also discovered a unique method for deriving Einstein's time dilation formulas and will be remembered for a paper titled "Whispering Waves in a Wine Glass," in which he describes how a wine glass can "sing." He also studied the safety of diagnostic ultrasound and applications of therapeutic ultrasound to medicine. In 1987, the Yale researcher founded Apfel Enterprises, which manufactured radiation-detection badges that were based on his research. The company's Superheated Drop (Bubble) Detectors have been used in hospitals, nuclear power facilities and laboratories across the country.

Professor Apfel noted in 1990 that the best thing about his experience in the business world was how it enhanced his abilities as a teacher. "I've learned a lot about the real world, which is where most of my students go after graduation," he said. "I can tell them firsthand about cost analysis, environmental safety issues and market analysis." Noting that true engineering was "a process of synthesis, which is very creative and is, in some ways, more related to art than to science," Professor Apfel added, "I think I am a better teacher of synthesis now because of my business experience."

A member of the Yale faculty for over three decades, Professor Apfel was chair of the former Council of Engineering, comprising the Departments of Chemical, Electrical, Mechanical Engineering and Applied Physics. Among the nearly 50 students he mentored at Yale, almost all have assumed major roles in the Acoustical Society of America (ASA) and in society in general. In 2002, he received the Yale Graduate Mentor Award.

In nominating the researcher for that award, one of his students wrote, "Training with Bob involves more than pure academics; it is also a lesson in life, with a good dash of humor; a lesson in humanity; and a lesson in human decency." In appreciation for his caring attention, his former graduate students established the Robert E. Apfel Fellowship Fund.

Although he taught in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Professor Apfel also gave lectures in the School of Architecture and wrote a primer on architectural acoustics called "Deaf Architects and Blind Acousticians." He edited the book "The Origins of Acoustics," by his mentor, Ted Hunt, and worked together with Hunt's son, Tom, to establish the Hunt Fellowship.

Professor Apfel, who earned his bachelor's degree from Tufts University in 1964 and his doctorate from Harvard University in 1970, was a former president of the ASA and the creator and editor of the new online journal Acoustics Research Letters Online. In 2002, he received ASA's highest honor, the Gold Medal for Lifetime Achievement; he published over 120 articles in 36 journals, including 41 in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, and was granted four patents.

His many honors and achievements include the 1971 A.B. Wood Medal from the American Institute of Physics for his fundamental work on the properties of liquids; the ASA Biennial award -- now the Lindsay Award -- in 1976; and the ASA Silver Medal in Physical Acoustics in 1997.

Professor Apfel was a writer, poet and active member of the Unitarian Society of New Haven. He was also involved in the New Haven community, especially as a mentor for students in the New Haven school systems and with the New Haven Science Fair. In 1996, he received an Elm-Ivy Award in recognition of his efforts to strengthen the relationship between Yale and the City of New Haven.

Professor Apfel is survived by his wife of 34 years, Nancy (Howe) Apfel; his daughter, Alison Apfel of Brighton, Massachusetts; and his son and daughter-in-law, Daren and Laurie Post Apfel of Redmond, Washington. He is also survived by his brother, Rick Apfel; his sister-in-law, Darlene Jones; and nieces, Gillian and Lauren Apfel. He was predeceased by his brother, Rod Apfel.

Donations to the Robert E. Apfel Fellowship Fund can be made c/o Dean of Engineering, Yale University, P.O. Box 208267, New Haven, CT 06520-8267.


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Ethics of studies on children to be explored in fall program

Talk focuses on technology's effect on humans

Journalists to gain insight into legal affairs as Knight Fellows

Yale Club of New Haven supports students' work in community

Proper skin care reduces chance of bedsores, say YSN researchers

Books in Brief

Campus Notes

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