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May 15, 2006 Press Contact: Steve Koppes
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Hsiao-Lan Kuo, meteorologist, 1915-2006


Hsiao-Lan Kuo

Hsiao-Lan Kuo, who helped pioneer the development of mathematical tools to describe the complex circulation patterns of the atmosphere and the forces that fuel a hurricane, died Saturday, May 6 following a long illness at the University of Chicago’s Bernard Mitchell Hospital. He was 91.

Kuo was a Professor Emeritus in Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago, and a resident of Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Following a long ocean voyage from his native China during World War II, he arrived in New York with little more than a scholarship for graduate study at the University of Chicago. But within just a few years, he had already left a lasting mark on the scientific community.

“Hsiao-Lan’s research is an important part of the theoretical foundation for much of modern meteorology,” said Princeton University meteorologist Leo Donner. A former Ph.D. student of Kuo’s, Donner said his mentor was “a brilliant scholar whose research inspired his students and fellow scientists with its keen physical insights, buttressed by mathematical argument.”

Kuo launched his career by extending the work of Lord Rayleigh, the early 20th-century Nobel laureate, by mathematically expressing the conditions necessary to transform a smoothly flowing fluid in the ocean or atmosphere into an unstable one that swells into eddies.

“It goes by the name of the Rayleigh-Kuo theorem, and it’s a very well-known theorem among our peers,” said Noboru Nakamura, Associate Professor in Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago.

In the mid-1960s, Kuo showed that the energy released by groups of convective clouds plays a major role in the intensification of hurricanes. “This led to the development of one of the early frameworks, referred to as ‘cumulus parameterizations,’ for including the effects of convection in weather forecasts and climate models,” Donner explained.

Donner speaks of his former professor as a man of quiet collegiality, deep thoughts and probing questions. Among the many other Ph.D. students whom Kuo supervised at the University of Chicago were Keith Seitter, current executive director of the American Meteorological Society, and Judith Curry, who heads the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Although not under Kuo’s direct supervision, the Weather Channel’s Greg Forbes took several of his courses. Kuo also served on Forbes’s Ph.D. committee.

“Dr. Kuo was one of my favorite professors,” Forbes said. “He taught me the first in the department’s series of required fluid-dynamics courses. I had a B.S. in meteorology from Penn State and had been exposed to many of these concepts already, but that course was really well-designed and taught and made all of the concepts crystal-clear.”

Kuo was born in Mancheng, a village in Hebei Province, China, on Feb. 7, 1915. As teenagers, he and his brother were expelled from high school for distributing leftist political literature. Originally named Dong Min, he then renamed himself after a famous Qing Dynasty scholar-poet, Gee Hsiao Lan, or, at it is currently written, Ji Xiaolan.

He set out for Tsinghua University in Beijing, passing the entrance examination without having finished high school. But in civil war-torn China at the time, many students were unable to provide high-school diplomas. “Passing the entrance exam was really the key to gaining admission,” said Kuo’s son, Bob Kuo.

Kuo received his bachelor’s degree from Tsinghua University in 1937, a master’s degree from National Chekiang University, Hangzhou, in 1942, and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1948. He attended the University of Chicago on a scholarship provided by the Chinese government to help repay the United States for assistance during the war. Among the other students to attend the University of Chicago on these highly competitive scholarships were Chen Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee, the recipients of the 1957 Nobel Prize in physics.

Kuo met his wife, Hsiao-Mei, at International House on 59th Street, while she was pursuing a master’s degree in nursing at the University of Chicago. They married on Sept. 17, 1949, in Cambridge, Mass.

From 1949 to 1961, Kuo worked on the Hurricane Project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, first as a research associate, then senior specialist, and eventually as project director. While at MIT, he studied the internal mechanics of hurricanes, mathematically describing the energy requirements that sustain their movement and feed the intense pattern of circulation around the eye of the storms.

In 1962, Kuo returned to the University of Chicago to join the faculty of the newly formed Department of Geophysical Sciences, a merger of the former departments of geology and meteorology.

In 1970, Kuo received the Carl-Gustaf Rossby Research Medal from the American Meteorological Society (AMS), the society’s highest honor, for his research on atmospheric dynamics, hurricane formation and related topics. As a Ph.D. student at Chicago, Kuo had conducted his research under Rossby, who at the time was conducting pioneering research on the jet stream.

Kuo returned to China twice during his career to teach, during the summers of 1973 and 1979. “He was always eager to discuss and exchange ideas with students and was among the first American scientists to actively renew exchanges with China, as new opportunities for collaboration emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s,” Donner said.

Kuo also maintained a lifelong love of Chinese history and literature. His favorite book, according to his widow, was The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a historical novel written in the 14th century, and set in the second and third centuries.

Kuo was a fellow of the AMS, a member of the American Geophysical Union and of the Academia Sinica in Taiwan. He published more than 120 papers on atmospheric dynamics and the application of mathematics to the study of weather and climate during his career. He officially retired in 1985, but continued to conduct atmospheric-science research for many years.

Kuo is survived by his wife of 56 years, Hsiao-Mei; three children, Emily, of Boston; Frank, of New York City; and Robert, of Lafayette, Calif.; and four grandchildren, Christopher, Sophia, Zachary and Lauren.

The family will hold a reception in honor of Kuo at 2 p.m. Saturday, June 17 in the Quadrangle Club on the University of Chicago campus, and a private memorial at the Kuo home in Hyde Park on Sunday, June 18.
Last modified at 11:57 AM CST on Wednesday, May 24, 2006.

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