Dowell Wins Medal

Dowell is Guggenheim Medalist for 2008

Earl Dowell’s set is now complete. That is, he just received the last major aerospace engineering award not already on his crowded mantle.

This summer, the dean emeritus of the Pratt School of Engineering and William Holland Hall professor of mechanical engineering and materials science, received the 2008 Daniel Guggenheim Medal Award. The award is bestowed jointly by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), the American Society of Mechanical Engineering, the American Helicopter Society and the Society of Automotive Engineers.

He will officially receive the award May 13, 2009 at the AIAA Aerospace Spotlight Awards Gala in Washington, D.C.

With this award, Dowell has amassed all the major honors in his field, including the Walter J. and Angelina H. Crichlow Trust Prize and the Spirit of St. Louis Medal. He is also a member of the National Academy of Engineering and an Honorary Fellow of the AIAA.

Dowell is best known for his research into aeroelasticity, a specialized field for which he literally wrote the book, specifically the seminal research monograph, “Aeroelasticity of Plates and Shells.” He is also the editor and co-author with colleagues at Duke and other universities of the textbook, “A Modern Course in Aeroelasticity,” now in is fourth edition.

“I believe we have the best group of engineers in the world working on aeroelasticity at Duke, and recognition of this sort is good for our group in engineering and great for the school in general,” Dowell said.

Dowell, who joined the Duke faculty in 1983 as dean of engineering and served in that role for 16 years, received the award “for pioneering contributions to nonlinear aeroelasticity, structural dynamics and unsteady aerodynamics which had a significant influence on aeronautics and for contributions to education and public service in aerospace engineering.”

The nomination for the award was made by the University of Michigan’s Peretz Friedmann, who has known Dowell since 1972.

“As a person, he is a wonderful guy,” Friedmann said. “He is low-key but very businesslike. He rarely gets upset. He is always polite and gets things done. While he was dean at Duke for all those years, he not only didn’t stop doing research, but his exceeded that of most faculty members. During that time he came up with a number of important contributions. He is a true gentleman and scholar – there aren’t many of them around.”

His expertise lie in understanding how materials and shapes, particular those of aircraft wings and surfaces, respond to the aerodynamic forces they experience during flight, and then how to ameliorate and/or take advantage of these effects. He and his colleagues have, for example, been working for decades with the U.S. Air Force in the design and testing of their aircraft.

“We’ve been working with the F-16 fighter for many years – every time they hang something new on it, like rockets or bombs, it becomes a brand new aircraft aerodynamically and structurally and must be reexamined from an engineering perspective,” Dowell said. “We’ve developed models that help determine what the effects of different configurations will have on the performance of the aircraft, and what needs to be done to make them safer and more effective.”

Current work at Duke includes that on the F-22 now just coming into service and the F-35 which is in flight test prior to being placed in service a few years from now.

Dowell came to Duke after 18 years at Princeton, where he made a name for himself in engineering circles by doing outstanding research on panel flutter, unsteady aerodynamics, active control of flutter, nonlinear structural dynamics and chaos and by developing the “Princeton Beam Experiment,” Friedmann recalled.

“Earl is known for the simplicity of his experiments, and the one at Princeton is a telling example,” Friedmann said. “The purpose of the experiment was to demonstrate the deformations of a cantilever beam when different loads were exerted on its ends. The engineers who work on nonlinear beam theory to this day still validate their theories against this experiment. The experiment was trademark Earl – he identified a problem, did some nice mathematical work, and then prepared a simple experiment to make sure the theory was correct. And in most cases it was.”

Dowell joins an elite group of Guggenheim medalists. Past winners include such aerospace luminaries as Orville Wright, Charles Lindbergh, Igor Sikorsky, William Boeing and Sir Geoffrey De Havilland.