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UBC Reports | Vol. 48 | No. 3 | Feb. 7, 2002

Rocket man

Prof. Emeritus Vinod Modi's curiosity makes him anything but retired

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 plane flight.

"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 including Japan.

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 more lift.

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," he laughs.


Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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