Alfred Inselberg, 1936-2019: A life full circle
Although Alfred Inselberg received both of his advanced degrees from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in mathematics, in a way, he began and ended both his education and career with strong involvement in the Dept. of Aerospace Engineering at Illinois.
Inselberg was born in Athens, Greece in 1936. As a young teenager, he graduated at the top of his class from Whittingehame College in Brighton, England—a private school, comparable to the high school level in the United States. It was there he discovered his unique abilities in mathematics.
According to his daughter Dona Inselberg, the eldest of his five children, her father taught himself English at the age of nine using a Webster's dictionary when he was hiding out for several months during WWII.
“My father graduated high school one year early because he was a genius,” Dona Inselberg said.
When he got to Illinois, he took a GED exam at the University Laboratory High School, which allowed him to begin studying at U of I at the age of 17.
“He loved to study and was at Illinois for 12 years,” Dona Inselberg said.
In 1953, while working on his a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering, together with Gary van Sant, and two other students under the guidance of Paul Torda, he founded the University of Illinois Rocket Society—this was four years prior to Sputnik.
Inselberg completed his B.S. in aeronautical engineering in 1958 and immediately continued his studies at Illinois in the Dept. of Mathematics. There he studied under Ray Langebarthel and Heinz von Foerster. He received his M.S. in 1959 and Ph.D. in 1965, both in applied mathematics and physics. While at Illinois, Inselberg started his career at the Biological Computer Laboratory. He was part of a cybernetics group working on biomathematics, developing mathematical models of the ear, neural networks, and computer models for vision and non-linear analysis.
Intellectually, Inselberg is probably best known for his work in visualization, and in particular, parallel coordinates. He took the concept a step further by introducing visual multidimensional geometry in which an unlimited number of parameters can be visualized.
On Inselberg’s website, he wrote, “My interest in visualization was sparked while learning Euclidean geometry. Later, as a Ph.D. student in mathematics at the University of Illinois, and studying multi-dimensional geometry, I became frustrated by the absence of visualization. Basically, we were doing algebra, which was being interpreted as geometry but without the fun and benefit of pictures. I kept wondering about ways to make accurate multi-dimensional pictures and derive insights about what may or may not be true in the multi-dimensional worlds. Since parallelism is the fundamental concept in geometry, and not orthogonality, which uses the plane very fast, I experimented with putting the coordinate axes parallel to each other.
“It was in 1977, while giving a linear algebra course that I was challenged by my students to ‘show’ them some multi-dimensional spaces,” Inselberg said on his website. “This was the catalyst leading to the subsequent development of the methodology…Later I had the good fortune to collaborate with Bernard Dimsdale (an associate of John von Neuman), at the IBM Los Angeles Science Center, who made many important contributions.”
Aerospace engineering Professor Harry Hilton was on the faculty when Inselberg was a student in the AE department. But it was many decades later that Hilton stumbled upon Inselberg’s textbook on the topic and contacted him to collaborate on a research project.
According to Hilton, Inselberg’s multidimensional visualization is difficult to understand, but once grasped, has great potential as a tool to understand anything that has many variables. For example, all of the parts and functions in an airplane can be visualized in one graph.
“I found his book, Parallel Coordinates: Visual Multidimensional Geometry and was intrigued with the concepts he presented,” Hilton said. “We began communicating and ultimately collaborated on a research paper in 2018 and ‘19.”
The study, “Combined Linear Aeroelastic and Aero-viscoelastic Effects in da Vinci—Euler—Bernoulli and Timoshenko Beams (Spars) with Random Properties, Loads and Physical Starting Transients, and with Moving Shear Centers and Neutral Axes. Part I: Theoretical modeling and analysis,” is published in Mathematics in Engineering, Science and Aerospace (MESA) and was written by Harry H. Hilton, Alfred Inselberg, Theo H.P. Nguyen, and Sijian Tan.
Hilton said he is working on another paper, Part II of the 2018-19 paper, on which Inselberg is cited. It is yet to be published.
During his career, Inselberg held senior research positions at IBM, where he developed a mathematical model of the ear in 1974 and later, collision-avoidance algorithms for air traffic control, resulting in three US patents. He concurrently held joint appointments at UCLA, USC, Technion, and Ben Gurion University and was elected Senior Fellow at the San Diego Supercomputing Center.
Since 1996, he was a professor at the School of Mathematical Sciences of Tel Aviv University.
“In 1973, my father went on sabbatical and worked in the Technion in Haifa,” Dona Inselberg said. “After he retired from IBM, he moved to Israel and became a visiting professor at Tel-Aviv University in the mathematics department. My father loved to travel and experience different things. He was a Zionist, so when we moved to Israel in 1993, it was an easy decision and he adapted quickly.”