Memorial Tributes: Volume 26
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  • JENS RASMUSSEN (1926-2018)



    JENS RASMUSSEN was born in Ribe, Denmark`s oldest city, on May 11, 1926, where his parents Anna and Emil Rasmussen lived. His father worked as an engineer at a company selling metal and iron tools for homes. Professor Rasmussen had a great enthusiasm for nature, and he wanted to become a biologist, but his father convinced him to become an engineer because of the profession’s job security and high salaries. However, his interest in nature continued to play an important role in his life. Professor Rasmussen received a MS.Sc. degree with honors in civil engineering from the Danish Technical University (DTU) in Copenhagen in 1950.

    He was married to Annelise Mark Pejtersen, research professor emeritus at Risø National Laboratory and associate professor emeritus in information science at the University of Washington, Seattle. He died on February 5, 2018, in Copenhagen at 92 years old. The happy outcome of his long life is four children, eight grandchildren, and ten great-grandchildren.

    In 1956 Professor Rasmussen joined the Atomic Energy Commission's Research Establishment Risø (later Risø National Laboratory). From 1962 to 1987, he was head of the Electronics Department, which was responsible for delivering control equipment to research experiments in other departments. While at Risø, he organized several research groups. For example, he organized a research group for errors and reliability of human behavior in high-risk work, initiated through field studies of operators´ thinking aloud during decision-making in control rooms. Engineering science offered no theories to explain the complexity of human information processing and decision-making behavior at work. Cognitive psychology inspired Professor Rasmussen´s analysis of operators´ decision-making behavior. This led to new cognitive models of human behavior, which today have proven to be valid in many similar work domains.

    Professor Rasmussen is regarded as the world’s foremost authority on human error in high-risk industrial systems. His theories of human error, diagnostic search (e.g., symptomatic vs. topographic), and associated models of behavior (e.g., the “skill, rule, knowledge” hierarchical model and the “level of abstraction” model) are broadly cited and are common subject matter in human factors and human reliability engineering courses in Europe, Asia, and the Americas.

    Rasmussen more than any other person is credited with a renaissance in recent decades of interest in and appreciation for the fallibility of human behavior in high-risk systems (e.g., human reliability analysis as part of probabilistic risk analysis in the nuclear power and other process control industries, aviation, and medicine). Rasmussen’s theories have enriched our understanding of error and the nature of mental models and cognitive work and the application of these ideas to systems design (e.g., the concept of an “ecological” human-computer interface). He was in wide demand as a keynote speaker at risk-related conferences.

    His contributions are discussed and illustrated in his two very highly regarded books, Information Processing and Human-Machine Interaction (North-Holland, 1986) and Cognitive Systems Engineering (Rasmussen, Pejtersen, and Goodstein, Wiley, 1994). A Festschrift volume in his honor, Tasks, Errors and Mental Models (Goodstein, Anderson, and Olsen, Eds.), was published by Taylor and Francis in 1988. More recently, in 2017, his work was celebrated in a special issue of Applied Ergonomics, “The Legacy of Jens Rasmussen,” edited by Patrick Waterson, Jean Christophe Le Coze, and Henning Andersen (Vol. 59, Part B, 471–656, March).

    Rasmussen’s election to the NAE was for “contributions to the science and engineering of human error and reliability, and for the modeling of human behavior.” His many other awards and honors include the LK-NES Industrial Prize (1972) for “outstanding contributions to man-machine research”; election to the Danish Academy of Technical Sciences (1962); the Distinguished Foreign Colleague Award from the Human Factors Society (1987) for “outstanding contributions to the human factors field”; the Norbert Wiener Award, IEEE Systems, from the Man and Cybernetics Society (1994) for “truly outstanding contributions to research and scholarship in cognitive engineering, human factors, ecological interface design and the skill-rule-knowledge paradigm for human information processing and judgment”; an honorary doctorate (Ing.) from the Technical University of Berlin (1997); an honorary doctorate (Sc. h.c.) from the University of Toronto (1999); and a fellowship from the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (2000).

    Jens Rasmussen was a warm and outgoing individual, open to assisting younger colleagues, and a dear friend to so many of us around the world. John Flach, professor emeritus at Wright State University, reflecting on such mentoring, indicated that “Jens adopted me as a mentee very early in my career. I think I was the first psychologist he met who had some inkling about control theory - and he was also interested in learning more about Gibson and Ecological Psychology. From my end, Rasmussen was giving me words to express ideas that were quite vague in my own mind; and practical problems where I could test my intuitions. He introduced me to people and recommended me for opportunities that I hadn’t earned yet. This was critical to my development as a scientist and cognitive systems engineer.” Kim Vicente, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, reflected on Jens’ mentoring, “Many people have asked me what it was like to work with Jens. I can summarize it by saying it was like two kids playing in a sandbox: fun and creative.”

    Creativity was not limited to Professor Rasmussen’s work life. He engaged himself and his family in various creative activities and experiments. He was curious to learn artistic skills and passionate to solve handcraft-related problems in his creative activities. He built his own tool to record bird voices at night, took photos of nature, and made movies of butterflies and drew sketches of a garden to attract them. He sailed on small boats, a kayak and an old Norwegian Optimist dinghy using a big square sail he sewed himself.

    Professor Rasmussen was knowledgeable about cultural history worldwide, and he was fond of making ceramics, clay pots, and wax and bronze figures, some inspired by Asian art. These were all handmade by himself and burned in ovens. He melted all sorts of iron tools.

    He played classic baroque music with his family and taught his children to play flutes. He knew how to play different flutes, the spinet, and the cello, and he frequently listened to baroque music. He loved to walk with headphones listening to classic novels.

    Professor Rasmussen was successful in his professional and leisure projects, his motivation encapsulated in his motto, “What you find worth doing is worth doing properly.” He often concluded a piece of work by saying, “Good enough for government work.” Then, he would immediately go back to his computer and begin the next challenge.