JAMES COLLYER KECK
born in New York City on June 11, 1924, the son of famed sculptor Charles Keck.
He spent his early years in Greenwich Village, where his father’s studio was
located, but financial losses resulting from the Great Depression forced the
family to leave Manhattan and move to their country home in Carmel, New York.
graduated from Carmel High School in 1942 and then went to Cornell University
where he majored in physics and minored in mathematics. An outstanding student
in physics, in 1944 he was drafted into the Special Engineering Detachment of
the U.S. Army, given the rank of technical sergeant, and sent to Los Alamos to
work on the atomic bomb project as part of the Manhattan Project. Years later
Jim told me, “I can’t understand how they picked me because I was just a kid
and hadn’t been at Cornell that long to know enough physics to be useful.” I
never had any doubt that was a usual understatement by Jim who was an
outstanding student. This was confirmed to me some years afterwards by his
supervisors at Cornell, Hans Bethe, who in 1943 became director of the
Theoretical Division of the Manhattan project at Los Alamos and later won the
Nobel Prize for his contributions to the theory of nuclear reactions, and
mathematics professor Mark Kac, who was the developer of modern mathematical
probability theory and its applications to statistical physics.
Los Alamos in 1946 and returned to Cornell to complete his studies in nuclear
physics, receiving his B.S. in 1947 and his Ph.D. in 1951. Among his many
life-changing events at Los Alamos was his meeting another physicist, Margaret
Ramsey, one of the few women scientists employed on the Manhattan Project, which
she joined in 1945. She also left the project in 1946 and went to Indiana
University to pursue a master’s degree, which she completed while working in
physics at Cornell. She and Jim were married in 1947. They both were employed in
the physics department at Cornell through 1952, where Jim conducted pioneering
experimental investigations of photo-nuclear reactions on a 300-Mev synchrotron
he assisted in developing. He then went to the California Institute of
Technology for three years as a senior research fellow, where he continued his
studies of photonuclear reactions on the 500-Mev Caltech synchrotron.
at the height of the Cold War, Arthur Kantrowitz, a professor at Cornell, had
become convinced that the most important problem facing America was the need to
develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). He foresaw Russia’s
threatening missile development, which was confirmed dramatically two years
later with the launching of the Sputnik satellite. To counteract the Russian
program, he decided to set up a research laboratory in Everett, Massachusetts,
under the umbrella of the Avco Corporation for the purpose of providing the
research needed to develop ICBMs that could reenter the atmosphere without
burning up. He had not known Jim from Cornell but had heard from Victor Emanuel
the head of Avco that Jim was brilliant, a fact passed on to him by his son who
did know Jim. Kantrowitz very much wanted Jim and in 1955, at a time when Jim
was prepared to go to Princeton, convinced him, along with a number of other
Cornell alumni, to join the new Avco-Everett Research Laboratory to help protect
America from Russian domination in ICBM development. Jim started at the
Avco-Everett Laboratory as a principal scientist, where he carried out both
experimental and theoretical studies of the chemical kinetics, radiation, and
ionization of gases heated by high-intensity shock waves. Such shock waves are
associated with the very high Mach number speeds of reentry of ICBMs. He also
had general responsibility for the laboratory’s associated programs in atomic
physics. His experimental and theoretical contributions in the areas of
nonequilibrium rate processes and the radiation of neutral gases and plasmas
obtained wide recognition. His pioneering work on the variational theory of
reaction rates laid a foundation for the theoretical description of thermally
induced gas-phase reactions, which received wide acclaim in the field of
Jim was appointed deputy director of the laboratory but resigned that position
in 1963. He had told me “the responsibilities of running the Lab aren’t
compatible with my doing my own creative research and that’s what I want to
do.” I was a consultant to the laboratory at the time, and it was clear that
his brilliance, coupled with his devotion to try to understand scientific and
engineering problems at their basic level, made him far more suited to a
university environment than to an industrial laboratory. With little effort I
convinced my colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that we
should invite him to join us, and in 1965 Jim accepted the position of Ford
Professor of Engineering in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT.
after joining the MIT faculty Jim assumed primary responsibility for the
direction and teaching of thermodynamics in the mechanical engineering
department. He emphasized the important, but less well understood,
nonequilibrium aspects of the subject, processes in the gas-phase, gas-surface
interactions, thermionic energy conversion, and air pollution problems
associated with combustion.
consequence of his experimental and theoretical research into the combustion
processes occurring in spark ignition engines, he obtained a much clearer
understanding of automotive pollution problems insofar as the production of
nitric oxide, carbon monoxide, and unburned hydrocarbons are concerned. He also
showed the nature of turbulent flame propagation and “knock” in these
engines. Taken together his work identified methods by which these pollutants
could be alleviated. These studies are regarded as a pioneering contribution to
the design of all present-day efficient and clean automobile internal combustion
his death Jim worked to develop basic theoretical models to describe elementary
atomic and molecular excitation, thermally induced chemical reaction rates,
rate-controlled constrained equilibrium, and flame theory, in addition to
continuing to understand the nature of engine combustion. He produced
outstanding research right up to his last days. As for his personal happiness,
there never was a question for he was a happy fellow who found joy in both his
work and his friends at the institute and who was loved by them all. In my many
years as a friend of Jim, I never heard anyone say anything about him less than
“What a nice fellow. “ He devoted himself to his students and was never
patronizing to them or his colleagues but rather was always ready to jump into
their technical problems because it was fun. He loved science and was forever
curious, and it was difficult for him not to start talking to his colleagues
without getting involved in their problems or raising issues with his own work
because it was fun.
involved as he was with engineering and science he had a lifelong attachment to
his extracurricular activities, among which was his vegetable garden at his home
in Harold Parker State Forest in Andover, Massachusetts. This was a serious
matter and not on a small scale. Indeed, it required the use of a backhoe, which
Jim acquired and used in a way admired by professionals. But no matter what the
task, always at the forefront of Jim’s behavior were fun and games. As he once
expressed to me, “I would rather be loved than famous.” He didn’t quite
get his wish, for not only was he loved by all but was also recognized and
honored internationally for his pioneering scientific and engineering studies.
gardening was a major hobby, Jim also enjoyed individual sports. In the winter
it was ice skating and skiing; in the warmer months it was swimming or hiking or
bicycling. When his children were growing up, he spent much of his free time
with them, encouraging them to pursue their interests, and he was always willing
to help them, whether it was building a dark room for his son’s photography or
putting up fences for his daughter’s horse. In later years Jim enjoyed working
with his daughter Pat, a sculptor, on the mechanical design of her movable
sculptures, teaching her basic mechanics in the process and emphasizing that the
simplest design was usually the best. He liked to say, “If you can’t explain
something simply, you probably don’t understand it very well.” That was a
concept he used in approaching any problem.
enjoyed parties and celebrations and threw himself into the preparations with
great enthusiasm. He hosted many parties for graduate students and faculty, with
the entertainment as varied as ice skating and sledding to badminton and
swimming. He was popular with visiting children because he was always willing to
stop whatever he was doing to play games with them or have a croquet match, set
up an archery range, or teach them new skills. Adults, meanwhile, enjoyed his
talents in mixing martinis. Jim was an optimist and was invariably cheerful and
upbeat. He was a joy to live with, and he brought joy to all who knew him.
retired from MIT in 1989, he took on some new ventures. First, he designed and
built, with the help of his daughter, a two-car garage to replace the one that
she had taken over for use as her studio. This was top priority for his wife,
who was tired of scraping ice off the cars during the long New England winters.
Second, he designed and, again with Pat as helper, built a barn to house two
horses and a storage area for garden machinery. From then on, one of his main
occupations was improving and maintaining his house and property. He loved the
hard physical outdoor work that this entailed, but he also claimed that he got
some of his best scientific ideas while mowing the fields with his garden
tractor. In the 1990s, as a result of a chance conversation with a friend, he
invented and worked on the development of a device to monitor septic systems
that led to the formation of a company now known as Sepsensor, Inc. He never
lost his interest in thermodynamics and continued to work until the end of his
life on nonequilibrium thermodynamics and rate-controlled constrained
equilibrium, meeting weekly with Northeastern University doctoral students who
were interested in pursuing his ideas.
addition to the honor of his election to the National Academy of Engineering, he
was honored by election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was a
fellow of the American Physical Society.
Keck, was professor emeritus in the Department of Mechanical Engineering when he
died on Aug. 9, 2010. He was 86.
joined MIT in 1965 as the Ford Professor of Engineering and developed teaching
and research programs in thermodynamics, kinetics and mechanics related to
energy generation and air pollution. Keck was the author of dozens of papers,
and his research at MIT focused on atomic and molecular kinetics, thermodynamics
and high-temperature gas dynamics. He was recognized by the National Academy of
Engineering for “developing innovative, widely used concepts for modeling
coupled chemical and physical phenomena in engine combustion and
of Professor Keck’s students and colleagues will ever forget seeing him
walking around MIT with a sharp pencil and a pad of paper filled with equations
and diagrams, ready to engage us in deep technical conversations filled with
sharp intuition and insight few others possess,” said Ahmed Ghoniem, Ronald C.
Crane professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and a colleague of
Keck’s for 27 years. “His child-like enthusiasm for science and engineering
was contagious and led to significant and long-lasting contributions in engine
development and energy sciences. Jim always maintained that complex systems are
governed by few parameters and that their behavior can be quantified accurately
using ‘simplified’ models built around the Second Law of Thermodynamics. He
always asked, ‘What is your model?’ insisting that conceptualization is the
essence of engineering science.”
born in New York City in 1924. In 1944, when he was studying physics at Cornell
University, he was put into the U.S. Army Special Engineering Detachment and
sent to Los Alamos to work on the atomic bomb. There he met Margaret Ramsey, who
was also working at Los Alamos as a physicist: the two would marry in 1947.
the war, Keck returned to Cornell, where he received a BA in 1947 and a PhD in
1951. His early interests included high-energy particle physics: Keck carried
out pioneering research in photo-nuclear reactions and in spectral radiation
from high-temperature shock-heated air.
after serving as a research associate at Cornell, Keck left for the California
Institute of Technology, where he served as a research fellow until 1955. That
year, he joined the Avco Everett Research Laboratory, where he researched the
reentry of missiles and spacecraft into the atmosphere. At the time of his
departure from AERL in 1965, he served as its deputy director.
joining the MIT faculty in 1965, he began researching the problem of burning
rates and pollutant formation in internal combustion engines. His experiments
and theoretical studies showed many things about such engines: how nitric oxide
is formed in them, the nature of turbulent flame propagation, and the nature of
“knock.” His work is widely used in the automotive industry in the design of
efficient and clean engines.
retiring from MIT, Keck advised graduate students at Northeastern University.
his death, Keck worked to develop basic theoretical models to describe
elementary atomic and molecular excitation, thermally induced chemical-reaction
rates, rate-controlled constrained-equilibrium, flame theory and engine
Probstein, Ford Professor of Engineering, Emeritus, was responsible for getting
Keck to come to MIT. Probstein met Keck in 1955 at AERL, where Probstein was a
consultant. The two remained close friends until Keck’s death. “Jim was a
remarkable person, having continued to produce outstanding research right up to
his last days,” Probstein said. “Despite his outpouring of work throughout
his life, which made him an outstanding scientist esteemed throughout the
scientific world, I always remember a remark he once made to me, that ‘I'd
rather be loved than famous.’”
The following was written by Demetria Irwin on The Boston Globe August 18, 2010.
James C. Keck, a noted physicist, was as passionate about his vegetable garden as he was about thermodynamics. An affectionate husband and doting father, Dr. Keck died of leukemia Aug. 9 at the Merrimack Valley Hospice House in Haverhill. He was 86.
The son of famed sculptor Charles Keck, Dr. Keck was born in New York City and spent his early years in Greenwich Village, where his father's studio was located.
Bad investment decisions forced the family to give up Manhattan living and reside full time in their country home in Carmel, N.Y.
He graduated from Carmel High School in 1942 and began his undergraduate studies in physics at Cornell University. His studies were interrupted when he was drafted into the Army, which sent him to Los Alamos, N.M.
His time in Los Alamos during World War II proved to be life-changing. Dr. Keck worked on the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project. Between experiments and developing theories, Dr. Keck met a fellow scientist named Margaret Ramsey. They wed in 1947.
"He was very attentive and very loving," said Margaret Keck, who lives in Andover. "We didn't make a big deal out of things, though. I never had a real engagement ring, and that was fine with me."
Dr. Keck received his bachelor's degree in 1947 and his doctorate in 1951, both in nuclear physics and from Cornell. For the first five years of their marriage, the couple were employed by the university.
Dr. Keck, starting at age 28, spent a few years as a research fellow at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, before moving to the Avco Everett Research Laboratory in Everett, where he worked on rocket science in response to the launch of Russia's Sputnik satellite.
Though there were challenges associated with work, Dr. Keck was an active family man.
"My father always had time," said Dr. Keck's daughter, Pat of Andover, who is also a sculptor. "If you came in with a problem, he would always put away whatever he was working on to help you out. I would not be where I am in my career right now if it were not for my father. Some of my pieces move, and he has helped me countless times over the years to get things just right. I don't know what I'm going to do without him."
Dr. Keck's son, Robert, a senior scientist at the Laboratory of Laser Energetics at the University of Rochester in New York, has fond memories of his father's devotion to science and life.
"He was great at teaching by example," his son said. "He never did anything for awards or fame. Everything he did was for fun. In the process, you'd end up learning. Science was one big toy for him. He just loved it."
In 1965, Dr. Keck became a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he pioneered research in a number of areas, including clean fuel technology for engines.
John Heywood, professor emeritus at MIT, said he relished working with his longtime colleague and research partner.
"When I became an MIT faculty member in 1968, I joined him in his research of car engine pollutants, and it was very exciting, because he showed us all a new way to approach the issue," Heywood said. "He always said, `If you can't explain something simply, you probably don't understand it very well.' He would approach very complicated problems in that way.
"Dr. Keck's work is widely utilized in the automotive industry today," he said. "I consider him to be a great mentor of mine."
Oft quoted in scientific circles, Dr. Keck was a mentor and friend to many. During his tenure at MIT, he and his wife would frequently host parties for his students at their home in Andover.
Hameed Metghalchi, chair of the mechanical and industrial engineering department at Northeastern University, met Dr. Keck in 1975 when Metghalchi was a graduate student at MIT.
"Back then, there was no e-mail, but Dr. Keck always made himself available to students as much as possible," Metghalchi said. "Now, as a professor myself, I can really appreciate that time he spent with me."
After retiring in 1989, Dr. Keck kept himself busy. In addition to meeting weekly with Northeastern doctoral students, he also cofounded a septic tank technology business called SepSensor and designed and built a garage with his daughter on their Andover property.
Dr. Keck learned how to operate a backhoe and spent hours tending to his vegetable garden.
A member of several prestigious organizations, including the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the American Physical Society, Dr. Keck also had a lighter side.
"He had a playful spirit, and he always had something fun for children to do," his wife said. "Our great-nephew spent many summers here, and they had adventures every day. The neighborhood kids loved him, too. It just wasn't a party unless Jim was there."
In addition to his wife, son, and daughter, he leaves his brother, Charles of Andover, Vt.