Friday, December 04, 2015

Steven Vogel, Biologist Who Studied How Things Move, Dies at 75

Photo
Steven Vogel in 2002. A biologist, he explored how mechanical constraints affect the shape and behavior of living things. CreditDuke University Photography
Steven Vogel, a biologist whose research and writing on how living things move in air and water helped define and popularize a new scientific field, comparative biomechanics, died on Nov. 24 in Durham, N.C. He was 75.
The cause was cancer, said Duke University, where he taught for 40 years.
Before Professor Vogel began his work at Duke, the physics of air and water and the biology of movement were quite separate, particularly in North America, said David Hu, who works in the same field at Georgia Tech. Professor Vogel, he said, “was the first to combine them in a way that everyone could understand.”
In scientific reports, texts and popular books, he explored how mechanical constraints affect the shape and behavior of living things. His subjects included leaves, algae, fungi, squid and prairie dogs, and he often used example and analogy to reach readers with limited mathematical knowledge.
A former student, Laura Miller, an associate professor of biology and mathematics at the University of North Carolina, recalled Professor Vogel conjuring the image of a tree full of small flags instead of leaves, noting that flags like the ones flown on car antennas end up in tatters, whereas leaves, by contrast, change shape in strong winds to become more streamlined, and survive.
Professor Vogel had a biologist’s romance with the natural world, but an engineer’s appreciation of human design.
“Loving nature is not at all the same as finding her perfect,” he wrote in “Cat’s Paws and Catapults: Mechanical Worlds of Nature and People” (1998), one of 10 books by him.
Professor Vogel cautioned strongly against what he saw as a growing assumption that nature knows best. In “The Life of a Leaf,” he wrote that evolution “wanders, misses chances, reinvents wheels, has trouble making radical alterations in its designs, and so forth.” He often pointed out that it took humans to capitalize on the possibilities of the wheel.
Steven Vogel was born on April 7, 1940, in the Hudson Valley city of Beacon, N.Y. His parents, Max and Jeannette Rachel Vogel, ran a drugstore, where he worked in his teens.
He graduated from Tufts University and received a Ph.D. in biology from Harvard. He arrived at Duke in 1966 and retired in 2006 as James B. Duke Professor. He won several awards for his teaching, and his former students now populate university departments across the country that focus on biomechanics.
He is survived by his wife, Jane; a son, Roger; three grandchildren; and a sister, Marjorie Dosik.
Dr. Miller said Professor Vogel did not pursue grants for his research because he thought that the application process limited creativity. Partly for that reason he built many experimental devices with parts from old machines, like washers and dryers. He was as generous with these creations as he was with his ideas.
One of his constructions was the “glop tank.” Researchers who study biomechanics often use substances like corn syrup and oil to stand in for water and air when testing large models of tiny body parts, like insect wings. Dr. Miller needed something to push these fluids along at variable speeds.
“All of the companies I called told me they didn’t have anything that would work,” Dr. Miller said. “Steve, on the other hand, told me he had just the thing.” He was delighted to give her the glop tank.
But his generosity always came with a price: puns. Professor Vogel’s penchant for wordplay was irrepressible and unavoidable.
“I went to his lab at Duke,” Dr. Miller said, “and he handed me the tank and said, ‘This will get you into a lot of sticky situations.’ ”

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