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James Keck, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering, dies at 86

Worked on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos
James C. Keck
James C. Keck

James C. Keck, a professor emeritus in the Department of Mechanical Engineering who began working at MIT in the mid-1960s, died on Aug. 9. He was 86.

Keck 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 high-temperature flow.”

“Few 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.”

Keck was 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.

After 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.

In 1952, 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.

After 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.

After retiring from MIT, Keck advised graduate students at Northeastern University.

Until 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 combustion.

Ronald 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.’”

Keck was a member of the National Academy of Engineering, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Physical Society.

He is survived by his wife, Margaret Ramsey Keck; his son, Robert Keck of Rochester, N.Y.; his daughter, Patricia Keck of Andover, Mass.; and his brother, Charles Keck of Andover, Vt.

Memorial contributions may be made to Massachusetts General Hospital Leukemia and Lymphoma Fund, 165 Cambridge St., Suite 600, Boston, MA 02114, or to the charity of one's choice.

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