Obituary: IAHR Honorary Member Professor Michael B. Abbott (1931-2019)

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Michael Abbott, Honorary Member of IAHR, sadly passed away on Thursday 19th December 2019, at the age of 88. IAHR mourns the loss of a ‘Giant’ within our community. Mike (as he was known to all) was a scholar, a visionary and a pioneer of computational hydraulics, hydroinformatics and, more recently, the water knowledge initative. He was always ahead of his time; his book on Computational Hydraulics in the early 1980s ushered in the new era of numerical modelling of free surface flow problems in hydraulic research and engineering. His lectures and work on hydroinformatics have guided the development of the global water industry, as big data and computational modelling provide everyday tools to manage water systems in numerous countries. His captivating teaching has inspired generations of students from all over the world - many of whom are now in leadership positions in academia, government and industry. He was an avid reader and a deep thinker who liked to share his philosophical views alongside the technical feats. In recent times he introduced IAHR members to the spiritual dimensions of the water world and encouraged IAHR to reach out for a global vision of water management, beyond a regional or country-specific context.  Mike was a dedicated promoter of IAHR  and a most revered and beloved friend to numerous IAHR members. He was an IAHR institution.

Mike Abbott was born in Barnet, UK, in 1931. He studied civil engineering at the University of London, graduating in 1953. He then studied fluid dynamics and computer programming at the University of Southampton (1957-58), followed by a diploma at the International Course in Hydraulic Engineering (IHE) in Delft (1958-59), and completing his PhD at Southampton in 1960. He was then appointed as a NATO Fellow at the University of Amsterdam (1963-64), followed by a Lectureship at the Technical University of Denmark (1964-66). In 1966 he returned to IHE (currently IHE Delft Institute for Water Education), where he advanced rapidly to become Professor in Computational Hydraulics and subsequently Hydroinformatics. In 2001 he was appointed Emeritus Professor in Hydroinformatics and continued working closely with many of the existing staff at IHE.  Throughout his career Mike wrote 7 texbooks on computational hydraulics and hydroinformatics – these are widely cited classics that have been translated into many languages, including Chinese and Russian. He published over 100 seminal journal  papers; many have won prestigious awards, such as the Journal of Hydraulic Research Best Paper Award (1979-80), the ASCE Karl Emil Hilgard Hydraulics prize (1988) etc. In 2002 he was awarded an Honoris Causa Doctorate (‘Hon Dr’) from the University of Thessaloniki. Througout his life in Europe Mike learnt and spoke 5 languages – a rare accomplishment for a UK national.

Mike Abbott was also an outstanding practitioner. In particular, Mike worked closely with the Danish Hydraulic Institute (now DHI Group) as a consultant (1970-2000). During that period he designed and led the first 3rd generation simulation software tools for hydraulic and environmental applications, project managed the System Hydrologic European (SHE) consortium, designed and constructed software for pipe-laying operations that became standard for Det Norske Veritas and, in particular, led the design, development and marketing of DHI’s 4th generation modelling systems: Mouse, MIKE 11, MIKE 21, MIKE SHE etc. The MIKE software tools, powered by DHI, form one of the most widely used suite of software tools developed to help tackle water environmental challenges worldwide. One of Mike’s most fascinating projects was the application of the MIKE software system in the hydro-environmental design of the Oresund Bridge project, linking Denmark and Sweden. In addition to reporting on the computational modelling of this project, he went on to publish seminal papers on using the internet and telephony to design real-time monitoring of such large-scale infrastructure projects, for which he received the ICE Telford Gold Medal (2017) for one of these papers. These principles are now widely used by international consultants and project managers worldwide.

In 2001 Mike Abbott returned to WL Delft Hydraulics (now Deltares) as a consultant, where he remained active throughout the early years of his retirement – although he never really retired. Alongside this move, Mike also co-founded the European Institute for Industrial Leadership (EIIL). Steven Price of EIIL writes: “in 2003 Mike wrote ‘European Industrial Leadership’ providing EIIL with a curriculum and value set for leadership, which was unrecognisable with those discussed in most business schools of the day and with some of these values only just starting to trend some 17 years later”. 

Michael Abbott will be remembered as an outstanding academic and scholar, a visionary intellectual, and a practitioner with an immense appreciation of multi-disciplinarity.  Above all, those that knew him well and had the pleasure and honour of working closely with him, will always remember him as a true and immensely valued friend – nulli secundus. He is survived by his devoted wife Louise and his daughter Jette.

By: Roger Falconer (Past President of IAHR), Peter Goodwin (Immediate Past President of IAHR) and Joseph Lee (President of IAHR)

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Professor Mike Abbott will be missed greatly by IAHR; he will always be remembered as one of IAHR’s ‘greats’. However, I will always remember Mike for the friendship and motivation he showed to me. I first met Mike in 1974; I was a PhD student and Mike was already an eminent figure in Hydraulic Engineering, at IHE Delft. At the time I was working on computational hydraulic modelling, rather in a vacuum, with the other PhD students working only on physical modelling. I then met Mike and everything changed; he inspired me to continue working on computational hydraulics. It was not me that Mike felt sorry for, but it was my colleagues who could not see the future and the opportunities of integrating computational and physical hydraulic modelling. To me Mike was a scholar and a visionary, but above all he was a true and loyal friend for over 40  years.

---- Professor Roger A. Falconer, Past President of IAHR

It was so sad to learn about passing of Mike Abbott.

Michael Abbott was indeed a visionary, educator, engineer, mathematician, thinker, and philosopher. Co-creator of computational hydraulics, and creator of Hydroinformatics. His professional life was largely connected to Delft: he has studied at IHE Delft in 1957-58, was Professor of IHE Delft from 1966 until 1996, and Professor Emeritus and active lecturer since then. He contributed considerably to make IHE Delft known around the world as an educational institution, and as a centre of excellence in research.

Mike formulated the fundamentals of Hydroinformatics in the end of the 1980s, when practically nobody had this vision of integrating computational hydraulics, modelling, IT and AI. He was a visionary who was seeing very far, and at times his ideas were not immediately understood. Some years later people were saying: Mike was right... and meanwhile he was again ahead of everybody.

On a personal note... Thirty years ago I started to work in Mike's group at IHE Delft, and I am so grateful to him for this trust, and later, for his friendship during all these years. He and his wonderful wife Louise were always extremely hospitable and nice, inviting regularly colleagues and students, with families, to their house. It was always a great fun - Mike had a great sense of humour. Discussions with him were always interesting, deep and inspirational. He was not only taller than many others were, but often he was also visibly higher intellectually. Many people can say that Mike shaped them as professionals and as personalities.

Mike will always be in our hearts.

---- Dimitri Solomatine, Chair Professor of Hydroinformatics, IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, Delft, The Netherlands  

Sad news indeed the one of Michael Barry Abbott’s passing away on 19th December 2019. Personal friend, scientific and engineering colleague, exceptional personality, man who influenced hydraulics developments of second half of 20th century, promoter of hydroinformatics, new branch of engineering activities, teacher of a whole generation of students on this field, interested in  and knowing world history, civilisations and literature, passionate by ethics, politics and economy, important active and then honorary IAHR member, creator and organizer of the IAHR  Section now known as Committee on Hydroinformatics; author of a number of books of high scientific value, person conscient of ecology and human often disastrous environmental activities. Professionally Mike Abbott had double activity and experience. Within Danish Hydraulic Institute (DHI) he elaborated the theory and then directed development of computational hydraulics software that first was used by DHI for its consulting activities and then was transformed in commercial activities of selling user friendly numerical modelling codes. Thus DHI became most important world-wide supplier of such software well known under the names MIKE-…(MIKE-SHE, MIKE-11, MIKE-21, etc.). This for practical engineering experience and applications. On the other hand, Mike spent important part of his life as Professor of Computational Hydraulics and Hydroinformatics at IHE at Delft, followed the academic career of research and education of new generations of graduate students. He devoted always considerable activity on the field of international cooperation of science and engineering working with IAHR but not only. One example, he participated as a lecturer in the famous two-weeks Institute on Unsteady Flow in Open Channels held in June 1978 at Colorado State University. This meeting was an important event: American hydraulics until that time neglected numerical modelling for water engineering and had some 15 years lag behind Europe. There were some 200 American engineers participating in this Institute, important part of them coming from the Corps of US Army Engineers and the event was instrumental in introduction of this practice into the USA. Mike and other lecturers were there to share their experience and teach the theory. 

Sometimes hard character, Mike could not resist to be frank and clear. Loyal to his friends and students. Leaves his admirable wife Louise.

In order to explain Mike’s importance to our profession and put better in light his personality let us remind the background of hydraulics science in the second half of 20th Century. Until 1950s hydraulics was essentially experimental engineering science. Hydrodynamics was considered more like part of mathematics: equations were there but analytical solutions, especially for nonlinear problems did not (and still do not) exist. Whenever real-life geometry, topography, head losses, sediment movement were considered, empirical formulae and coefficients were useful, personal experience, reduced scale modelling and engineering intuition were used. Research and scientific progress in the area were carried out by teams and institutions who also acted as engineering consultants and designers and new methods and approaches stemmed often from specific engineering projects.

The developments of numerical analysis during 1920s brought the idea that differential and integral hydrodynamics equations could be solved approximately, numerically, not exactly. But it was only when theoretical bases of Applied Mathematics were developed, and appearance of the computers occurred that such approach was realistic. It happened in trail of Manhattan Project for which the new approach was used to solve approximately theoretical formulations of gas dynamics – the computers were not yet really there but the  mathematical theories proving how and when such approximate numerical solutions were converging towards analytical (unknown) solutions of differential equations were developed. The basic publication by Richtmyer concerning Numerical Analysis was there resuming mathematical theory of existence of approximate solutions converging to exact solutions as function of necessary boundary and initial conditions, conditions of numerical stability and consistency of approximation of equations.

In 1950s-60s with appearance of the computer tools the question raised how to adapt correctly the new ideas, approaches and technologies to problems of, first hydraulics, then hydrology and water resources. This was done by a group of people all of them belonging to a limited number of European engineering companies and institutes and it was done often in spite of traditional often conservative attitudes of the profession. Mike Abbott not only belonged to this group but was one of its leaders and promoters of new engineering and scientific domain: computational hydraulics. It was not easy: first IAHR section under his leadership and devoted to this activity was called “Section on Use of Computers”. Number of other colleagues full of disdain were very near to call its members “computer programmers replacing slide-rules”. It was some 20 years fight to legitimate the area, to name it “Committee on Computational Hydraulics”, to make hydraulics community ready for the age of informatics. And Mike Abbott was one of the leaders in this work. I would not dare to write “the leader”, but he was not far from that among other reasons because he maintained his independent position and because he was convinced of its rightness, because he did not locked himself in an ivory tower of academia but was a pioneer of engineering projects and activities while writing books on various aspects of the field. And encouraging and helping colleagues and competitors to publish books, papers and organise conferences.

To illustrate above I would bring in the story of the meeting in Elsinore. In early 1970s a number of consulting firms as well as universities wanted to write and use modelling software – it was fashionable and considered as trivial. Mike, the chairman of IAHR Committee was, like some others worrying about quality of results. And possible catastrophic loss of face for the whole domain. Indeed, the fight for contracts between engineering consultants had (and still has) no angelistic character. The result: numerical approaches, discretisation, representation of reality, convergence of numerics to correct solution etc. were kept secret and when applied by some were often dubious. It was a great menace to the new domain during the period of initial multiplication of studies and management systems using modelling software developed sometimes by amateurs. Mike took initiative which was kept discreet and aimed to ensure sane situation. He invited some 20 people active within the IAHR Committee to a private meeting at Shakespeare Hamlet town Elsinore in Denmark. These persons were chosen among modelling specialists from main European institutions (SOGREAH, DHI, EDF, Wallingford, Delft Hydraulics,…)and all have decisive weight in knowledge and  development of modelling software in these places. But it was not enough: they were all intellectually open, they all thought that the domain of their activity can only gain in value if it is considered as a science and not some collection of industrial secrets. That it needed recognition as such within the <community. People like Alexandre  Preissmann, Jean-Pierre Benqué, John Weare and others were asked to come but under conditions: the meeting was to be considered as private, no written papers were to be presented, no reports published, all participants would be ready to present to others all details of their software/concepts, tricks used in discretisation and modelling, all questions could be asked and all answers to questions were to be given without reticence. That is how Mike organised this meeting and it was an unheard initiative in the highly competitive world of consulting, and it was an event of great importance. Each participant of the meeting would then keep all others in high respect and esteem. Thanks to Mike’s initiative the research domain as well as industrial competition of the profession did not plunge into dishonesty and vile fights of the market. Walking in the evening along the site of Elsinore chateau he told me why he has chosen the place for this meeting; “Because our exchanges and discussions are to be or not to be for computational hydraulics”. One of consequences was the gain of appropriate place for this activity within the IAHR and eventually creation of new area and change of the name of the IAHR Committee to the name forged by Mike: HYDROINFORMATICS.

Mike was conscious of the value of his work and he was ambitious man. His ambition was to develop new solutions, new areas, new scientific findings. His ambition was to leave his name in the history of hydraulics engineering and in memory of his students and colleagues. This happens through our better understanding of transformation of the practice of our domain that occurred during last half century in adaptation to the new world of connectics, internet and IA. And through our memory of Mike’s role, or, using informatics jargon Mike’s input to it. And that would be our way to bring to Louise Abbott Alberts our sympathy and thanks for her admirable devotion during last couple of years.

---- Jean A. Cunge, IAHR Honorary Member

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