On February 1, 1996 the world lost a distinguished scientist and the faculty, staff and students of the Marine Sciences Research Center lost a beloved colleague, mentor, teacher and friend. Akira Okubo died peacefully in his sleep after a long battle with cancer. Fortunately, the Center was able to honor Akira and commemorate his distinguished life and achievements at a two-day Symposium on July 21 and 22, 1995. After a career spanning almost 50 years, Akira, a man of diverse interests and talents, a man of incredible generosity and compassion, celebrated his retirement among friends, colleagues and students. One of the presenters, Dr. Simon Levin, suggested that the Okubo Symposium was one of the easiest events to plan because people were eager to honor the man who had touched their lives so significantly. With participants coming from across the country, Dr. Levin’s words certainly capture the sentiments of all who participated.
MSRC Dean and Director, Kirk Cochran, opened the Symposium with an overview of Akira Okubo’s long and distinguished career. In Dean Cochran’s words, Akira “left us all gasping for breath.” Beginning his intellectual life in Japan, Akira received his Bachelors of Engineering in 1947 and his Masters of Science in Physical Chemistry in 1949 from the Tokyo Institute of Technology. He then served as Chief of the Chemical Oceanographical Section of the Japan Meteorological Agency in Tokyo from 1950 – 1960. In 1959, Akira came to the United States to pursue his Ph.D. at the Chesapeake Bay Institute (CBl) at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Under the tutelage of Donald Pritchard Akira completed his degree in 1963 and continued to work at the CBI until 1974 when he was appointed Professor of Mathematical Ecology at the Marine Sciences Research Center. At MSRC, Akira quickly distinguished himself as a faculty member, not only in physical oceanography, but also in the many other disciplines that incorporated his wide interests in oceanic diffusion, animal and insect swanning, and studies at the physical-biological interface. Akira became the complete theoretician – an applied mathematician with a keen sense of physics and biology, and a rare insight into where the significant problems lay. Actively sought out by leading marine scientists worldwide over the years, Akira worked with almost one hundred collaborators. As sole author and with his colleagues he published over 150 papers.
Akira’s remarkable contributions earned him numerous honors, including the prestigious Medal of the Oceanographical Society of Japan, and a Senior Visiting Scholarship at the University of Oxford. His studies ranged from dye diffusion in the ocean, circulation in oceanic fronts, Lagrangian dispersion, and midge swarming behavior from its chemistry to ethology. He applied his insights into turbulent mixing to subjects as disparate as seed dispersion, animal grouping behavior, and spider webs. His text on mathematical models for diffusion and ecological problems, published in 1980, remains a modern classic.
The diversity of Akira’s interests was reflected in the topics of the presentations. With talks ranging from, Scalingfrom Individuals to Ecosystems; (Simon Levin from Princeton) to Plankton Patchiness and Reaction Diffusion Mechanisms; (Thomas Powell from University of California, Berkeley,) to Space Versus Time; Who Won? (John Steele from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) to Turbulent Transport of Gametes and Larvae Near Wave-swept Shores; (Mimi Koehl from University of California, Berkeley) to The Interface Between Physics and Biology in the Mixed Layer; (Trevor Platt from the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, Canada) to Objects Drifting the Seas: 5, 000 Years BP to the Present (Curtis Ebbesmeyer from EvanHamilton, Inc. in Seattle Washington). The character, content and tone of the Symposium told the story of the amazing breadth of Akira’s remarkable career.
Yet, over and over again during the course of the two day Symposium, presenters and participants hinted that the sum of Professor Okubo’s achievements and influence added up to so much more than his life as a scientist. In Dean Cochran’s words, “Akira is a professor in the truest sense of the word. His colleagues have learned as much from him as his students have. We consider Akira Okubo our national treasure.” Few scientists have touched as many lives and hearts. Through his own enthusiasm and through his natural role as a mentor, Akira multiplied his influence among his colleagues and students many times over. Everyone who has come in contact with Akira has found their life immeasurably enriched.
To honor Akira’s memory the Center is establishing an endowment fund to support student scholarships, student travel to scientific meetings and visiting scholars. Contributions to this fund should be made payable to the Stony Brook Foundation “Okubo Fund” and sent to Dr.]. Kirk Cochran at MSRC .
From MSRCNEWS, June 1996 (PDF)