UBC Reports | Vol. 48 | No. 3 | Feb.
Prof. Emeritus Vinod Modi's curiosity makes him anything but
by Michelle Cook staff writer
In the daily symphony of life here on Earth, planes rumble
overhead leaving behind their wispy trails of vapour. Higher still,
satellites beep out their graceful orbits around the planet. Closer
to home, transport trucks thunder down highways, buildings sway
to the earth's regular rumblings while, in each of us, blood pumps
quietly through a beating heart.
Like a conductor, Vinod Modi has had a hand in ensuring that all
these movements -- big and small -- run smoothly.
Modi isn't a maestro, but the musical analogy is an apt one for
the professor emeritus of Mechanical Engineering. In both his professional
and personal endeavours, Modi has treated life much like an orchestra
and this philosophy is reflected in his diverse research interests.
From satellites and airplanes to buildings, trucks and human hearts,
Modi has done landmark work.
In an award-filled career spanning more than four decades, Modi's
most recent accolade is an honorary membership in the Japanese Rocket
Society. He is the first Canadian to be inducted into the 45-year-old
learned society. With the honour, Modi joins the ranks of 22 international
pioneers who've explored the frontiers of aerodynamics, satellite
and rocket science.
Modi's fascination with space began when he was a boy. Born near
an airport in Bombay, India, he spent many childhood hours watching
planes in motion. His curiosity prompted him to enter and win a
magazine story contest. As part of his award, he got to take a short
"That's when I decided how great it is to fly," Modi recalls.
"It was exhilarating and I decided I'd like to be an aeronautical
engineer, even though I actually had no idea what that meant."
He went on to study mechanical, electrical and aeronautical engineering
in India before moving to the United States. He received his master's
degree from the University of Washington and his PhD from Purdue
University where he met his wife, Mira.
After graduating, Modi worked for the Cessna Aircraft Co. in Wichita,
Kan., where he also earned his private pilot's license. After a
couple of years, he accepted an offer to work at UBC, although he
admits that he wasn't even sure where Vancouver was at the time.
Modi arrived on campus in 1961. Since then, he has graduated 38
PhD students and 37 master's degree students. Although now officially
retired, he still works with a small group of senior students.
"I enjoy being with students, with young creative minds," Modi
says. "It's satisfying to show them engineering at work -- it's
something different than just publishing papers. They're so excited,
they don't want to go home at night. I don't want to lose that contact."
Modi's research projects reflect his love of diversity, but all
are linked to his interest in how things travel through their environment.
His theory that the same laws govern all objects in movement --
from rockets in outer space to blood in arteries -- has been the
key to his many research successes.
Among his many accomplishments, Modi put his theory to work in
the early 1960s to collaborate with U.S. doctors to design better
artificial hearts for transplant patients.
Looking to the ocean waves for inspiration, Modi designed liquid-filled
dampers that, when fitted to the tops of tall buildings, help to
reduce vibrations caused by high winds and seismic tremors. His
dampers are now used on buildings in several earthquake-prone countries
He and fellow UBC researchers are credited worldwide with solving
a 200-year-old mechanics riddle called the "many body problem."
Modi considers it a crowning career achievement.
Remaining true to his first love, Modi has devoted much of his
research time and imagination to air and space flight, including
explorations into how to keep space shuttles and the new international
space station stable.
He is currently developing a snake-like manipulator arm for the
space station that will be able to extend and change shape to avoid
obstacles. The invention is completely unique to UBC.
Modi has also given longer life to spy satellites by finding a
way to control them with natural solar pressure rather than fuel.
These $60-million handy cams can now snap photos for up to three
years instead of just 45 days, saving users like the US and Russian
governments hundreds of millions of dollars in replacement costs.
For 10 years, Modi has been working on designing better airplane
wings by fitting them with horizontal rotating cylinders to generate
The technique, called moving surface boundary-layer control, allows
aircraft to carry larger loads, maneuver more easily and land at
lower speeds. NASA has built a successful prototype using Modi's
design and the US Air Force is planning to incorporate it into its
next generation of fighter planes.
He adapted the same kind of cylinder to a transport truck, reducing
its aerodynamic drag by 24 per cent. With the promise of enormous
savings in fuel costs, General Motors, Nissan and Mazda all have
plans to introduce Modi's concept into new truck models.
While people around the world are using his inventions to save
time and money, he has never patented any of his designs.
"I grew up with a different kind of philosophy," Modi explains.
"I came to the conclusion that knowledge should be free and available
to everyone. Like the sun, you don't pay for it although it's a
source of life."
At 72, he has no plans to slow down. An avid photographer, he
has won several prestigious awards and shown his work in 64 countries
including India where, in 1998, an exhibition of his pictures raised
$34,000 for India's national association for the blind.
And his curiosity remains insatiable. He recently set his sights
on the open sea, where he hopes to experiment with his rotating
cylinder technology on large ocean-going barges.
Even with so many accomplishments, Modi can't pinpoint one research
project that holds special significance for him.
"Asking that is like asking a father which child is his favourite,"