National Academy of Engineering, Volume 25
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PublisherNational Academies Press
ReleasedMarch 1, 2023
Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 25

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  • SAU-HAI LAM 1930-2018


    SAU-HAI LAM, the Edwin Wilsey ’04 Professor Emeritus at Princeton University, passed away October 29, 2018, at age 87. Harvey, as he was known, was a beloved member of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) and widely admired as a teacher and scholar, for his original and penetrating academic contributions, and for his razor-sharp intellect. As a wise counselor, a kind mentor, and an inspired teacher, he educated and nurtured generations of students.

    During his 39 years on the Princeton faculty, he served as director of the Engineering Physics Program, MAE chair, and associate dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science. He collaborated for many of those years with Seymour Bogdonoff (NAE 1977) and other members of the Gas Dynamics Laboratory, and participated in the creation of the Princeton Program in Applied and Computational Mathematics, which he cochaired from 1983 to 1986.

    As an educator, he perfected the departmental pregeneral interview process, creating a deep and personal learning experience for generations of graduate students. He would generally start with “tell me something you know,” and students quickly found out that knowledge requires understanding and reasoning and cannot be acquired by simply memorizing formulas. He was always approachable in spite of his “awesome intellect,” and would patiently work with each student to explain and illustrate fundamental concepts. Prospective PhD students came out of his multihour interviews with a pro- found respect for him and an appreciation for this never-to-be- equaled educational experience. He further enriched graduate education by organizing the “Grand Canonical Ensemble” (inspired by a term from statistical mechanics), an informal group of students who gathered regularly to discuss current topics in science and engineering.

    He was an early admirer of the new microcomputer revolution and, recognizing the potential impact of the new micro-computer technology on engineering, in 1978 introduced an undergraduate course on microprocessor programming.

    He was also dedicated to providing opportunities for those who had not had them. In the mid-1960s, he and Bogdonoff organized and ran the first Princeton summer orientation program for disadvantaged students to prepare them for college math and physics. This included teaching many how to use a slide rule. The program continued successfully for decades. Later, he and his wife established the Patsy and Harvey Lam ’58 Family Scholarship Fund and the Harvey S.H. Lam ’58 Endowed Fund in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. Graduating seniors are recognized for outstanding academic achievement with the Sau-Hai Lam ’58 Prize in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

    Harvey viewed himself as a “theorist” who focused on interesting theoretical and mathematical issues associated with engineering problems. His research included dynamics of ionized gases, thermionic energy conversion, reduced chemistry modeling of complex combustion systems, dynamics of boundary layers and turbulence, and nonlinear control theories. His 1965 paper, “Unified Theory for the Langmuir Probe in a Collisionless Plasma,” remains a classic.1 He viewed these problems as related by a single mathematical property common to them all, the existence of multiple time and length scales.

    He pioneered the methodology of computational singular perturbation for analyzing complex chemical reactions in fluid dynamics, which he first presented in 1985.2 He followed those advances with contributions to modeling of plasma sheaths and thermionic power conversion. With his fertile and active mind, his interests extended well beyond plasmas and included modeling of collisional rotational energy exchange and the impact of CO2 on climate—for the latter he collaborated on a 2007 paper with Robert Socolow.3

    He had wonderful insights and a way of creating compelling analogies, such as imagining one person bucking the oncoming crowds in Times Square to help debunk weakly ionized “plasma magic.” He believed in scientific literacy for everyone and taught a freshman seminar on how to estimate practically anything, from the number of leaves of grass in a lawn to the number of potentially habitable planets in the universe.

    The youngest of nine siblings, Harvey was born December 18, 1930, in Macau and grew up in Shanghai. As a youth during World War II, he witnessed from his rooftop American B-29s flying overhead and P-51s and P-38s strafing the airport. He was admitted to the very competitive Shanghai Middle School. In his memoir he recalls that on the entrance exam one of the problems was to compute the square root of 0.4. “Of course, I immediately put down 0.2 (I did not know how to do square roots long-hand), and went on to do three more problems. When I found the rest were too difficult, I came back to check the answer I gave for this problem. I multiplied 0.2 by itself, and was shocked to discover that it gave 0.04. So I tried 0.3, then 0.6, then 0.7, and finally settled on 0.63. Apparently this was the make-or-break math problem of my life.”

    Later, with the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists in full swing and the People’s Liberation Army approaching Shanghai, he moved with his family to Hong Kong, where he completed high school. His education at the Shanghai school turned out to be “years ahead” of his peers in Hong Kong.

    His older brother was then working in New York City and suggested he come to the United States. Harvey applied and was accepted to San Mateo Junior College in California, but when he arrived in 1949, his brother sent him to Lakemont Academy, a very small (enrollment 80) private (boarding) high school in the Finger Lakes region of the state of New York, to improve his spoken English. He excelled there and by the end of the year was speaking fluent English.

    Harvey went on to undergraduate studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), supported in part by a dishwashing job during the academic year and by working for Montgomery Ward as a draftsman during the summer. He chose aeronautical engineering as his major, based on his fascination with the airplanes he had seen from his Shanghai rooftop.

    When it became clear that returning to China was not an option, a friend convinced him to apply to graduate school. On the RPI Aeronautical Engineering Department’s bulletin board, he saw a flyer about the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Jet Propulsion Laboratories. There was one at CalTech with Professor H.S. Tsien and one at Princeton with Professor Luigi Crocco (NAE 1979). Tsien was well known to Harvey, but his brother assured him that Princeton was a good place and close to New York City. He applied, and Princeton gave him a Guggenheim Fellowship. He completed his PhD under Crocco in 1958. He spent the next year as a research associate at the Gas Dynamics Laboratory under Bogdonoff and then accepted a junior faculty position in aeronautics at Cornell, where he was mentored by William Sears (NAE 1968) and Nicholas Rott (NAE 1993).

    After a year at Cornell as an assistant professor of aeronautics, Harvey came back to Princeton as an assistant professor in 1960 at the invitation of MAE chair Courtland Perkins (NAE 1969, past NAE president). He was promoted to associate professor in 1963, spent a sabbatical year at Stanford in 1966–67, and became a full professor at Princeton in 1968. In 1972 he was named the Edwin Wilsey ’04 Professor and director (until 1980) of the Engineering Physics Program, which he elevated to number one in national ranking. In 1981 he served as associate dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science and in 1983 he succeeded Bogdonoff as MAE chair, serving in that capacity for 6 years.

    After his retirement in 1999, he arranged to spend some time at Stanford, where he continued to teach, pursue his research, and reconnect with Rott. He also taught as a visiting professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing upon the invitation of one of the authors (CKL, NAE 2002).

    He was a fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, American Physical Society, and American Society for Engineering Education. He received the Princeton University Engineering Council Teaching Award in 1993, and was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2006.

    Harvey was skilled in Chinese calligraphy and accomplished as a clay sculptor. In the early 1980s, together with his younger son Philip, he created the “Princeton font” for mathematical formulas; it was later formally accepted by the American Mathematical Society for its manuscripts. Among his other interests were tennis and golf, and teaching himself new programming techniques on his computer.

    Harvey Lam was admired for his consummate integrity, his ability to identify the truth in all situations, and the generous and insightful counsel that he provided to students and faculty. His dedication to education was remarkable and his intellectual contributions to the field were seminal. His dedication, insight, and guidance had a lasting impact on four generations of students and departmental colleagues and staff. He was an extraordinary man, universally respected for his scholarship, his humanity, his fairness, and his warmth and sense of humor.

    He is survived by his wife of 59 years, Patsy, sons Nelson and Philip, daughter Karen, and seven grandchildren.

    1 In Physics of Fluids 8(1):73 ( 
    2 Lam SH. 1985. Singular perturbation for stiff equations using numerical methods. In Recent Advances in the Aerospace Sciences, ed. Casci C, Bruno C. New York: Plenum Press.
    3 Socolow RH, Lam SH. 2007. Good enough tools for global warming policy making. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A 365(1853):897–934. 

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