Victor Barcilon, applied mathematician and geophysical scientist, 1939–2020

Scholar remembered for disciplined thinking, contributions to fluid mechanics

Prof. Emeritus Victor Barcilon, applied mathematician and geophysical scientist, died April 15, 2020. He was 81.

A longtime professor at the University of Chicago, Barcilon showed a gift for using a type of mathematics called asymptotic analysis to improve understanding of the physical principles behind the world, from the mechanics of neurons to the behavior of oceans, glaciers and rock over time.

“The basic laws of physics in their general primitive form are too hard to understand and solve in most natural phenomena,” wrote Prof. Douglas MacAyeal, a glaciologist in the Department of the Geophysical Sciences. “But with the gift of Victor’s deep, disciplined mathematical thinking, small physical understandings yield huge leaps and bounds of understanding (and forecast ability).”

In the early part of his career, Barcilon published extensively in the field of fluid mechanics, and applied those principles to questions such as how lava forms new sea floor crusts when volcanoes erupt underwater—as well as other areas in meteorology and oceanography.

He mentored MacAyeal, helping to determine how the ice streams of Antarctica flow and what happens below the ice of Antarctica where the ice/rock contact goes from frozen to melted. 

“The work that Victor mentored me on, and which we published as co-authors, forms the present basis of the understanding of Antarctica’s contribution to possible sea level rise, as far as ice-sheet models are concerned,” said MacAyeal.

Later, Barcilon also applied mathematical and fluid modeling to understand the electrical movements inside cells, such as neurons. He also made contributions in pure and applied mathematics, considering problems such as the dynamics of vibrating strings.

Barcilon was born in Cairo, Egypt in 1939. He attained a bachelor’s degree from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and a master’s and doctorate in applied mathematics from Harvard University.

Prior to joining the University of Chicago as an associate professor in the Department of the Geophysical Sciences, Barcilon was a faculty member in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Meteorology, and at the University of California, Los Angeles in the Department of Mathematics and Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics. He also spent a year as postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oslo.

Barcilon retired from UChicago in 2000. He and his wife Danielle Barcilon, a computer consultant, were avid art collectors who donated multiple pieces to museums. From 1978 to 1987, they also lived in and restored the Heller House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and located at 5132 S. Woodlawn Ave. in Hyde Park. Their daughter, Audrey, graduated from the UChicago Laboratory Schools in 1980.

“Victor’s help and collegiality towards me was essential in my professional life,” said MacAyeal. “His way of thinking with discipline, guided by mathematics, was his genius and his contribution to both science and humanity.”

—This story was first published by the Physical Sciences Division.