Ivo Babuška, Mathematician Known for Finite Element Method Breakthroughs, Dies at 97

April 17, 2023

photo of ivo babuskaIvo Babuška, who made pioneering contributions in the fields of mathematics, applied mathematics, numerical methods and computational mechanics, died April 12, 2023 at age 97.

A Czech-American citizen, Babuška was world-renowned for his studies of the finite element method (FEM) and proof of the Babuška–Lax–Milgram theorem. He spent the final 23 years of his career at The Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin where he retired as professor emeritus.

“Ivo was one of the greatest mathematicians of our lifetime, a true giant,” stated J. Tinsley Oden, founding director of the Oden Institute. “We are so very fortunate to have known him and to have had him as a dear friend and active member of our institute and faculty. We will miss him and always remember his kind manner and his enthusiasm for his work and that of his colleagues.”

Born March 22, 1926, in Prague, Czech Republic, Babuška was the son of architect Milan Babuška and wife Marie. According to his biography, he lived through the 1938 German invasion and much of his secondary education took place under German occupation.

During his early career in Czechoslovakia, Babuška met his wife, Renata at Charles University and they married in 1957. When Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in 1968, Babuška and his family, which now included two children, immigrated to the United States via an invitation from the University of Maryland, College Park. He initially spent a year as a visiting professor at the Institute for Fluid Dynamics and Applied Mathematics and then became a permanent faculty member there until his first retirement in 1995.

Later that year, after departing Maryland, Babuška began his career at The University of Texas at Austin. He was a professor of aerospace engineering, engineering mechanics and mathematics; an Oden Institute senior research scientist; and a member of the Oden Institute Multiscale Modeling Group. He held the Robert B. Trull Chair in Engineering. In Spring 2016, Babuška was named the first recipient of the W.A. "Tex'' Moncrief, Jr., Distinguished Faculty Fellowship in Computational Sciences.

Babuška’s research culminated with celebrated results in the finite element theory and methods, the so-called Ladyzenskaja–Babuška–Brezzi (LBB) condition (also referred to in some literature as Banach–Necas– Babuška theorum (BNB), which provides sufficient conditions for a stable mixed formulation. The LBB condition has guided mathematicians and engineers in developing state-of-the-art formulations for many technologically important problems in fluid flow like Darcy flow, Stokes flow, incompressible Navier–Stokes elasticity.

Babuška published more than 350 refereed journal articles and 26 books and worked with close to 150 co-authors. Babuška advised 40 Ph.D. students, leaving a lasting legacy for generations to come.

In 2012, Babuška was awarded the AMS Leroy P. Steele Prize for Lifetime Achievement, for the cumulative influence of the total mathematical work of the recipient, high level of research over a period of time, particular influence on the development of a field and influence on mathematics through Ph.D. students.

During his distinguished career, Babuška received numerous accolades: five honorary doctorates; member of European Academy of Sciences (2003); Fellow of SIAM and ICAM; the Czechoslovak State prize for Mathematics; the Leroy P. Steele Prize (2012); the Birkhoff Prize (1994); the Humboldt Award of Federal Republic of Germany; and the Neuron Prize Czech Republic, Honorary Foreign Member of the Czech Learned Society and the Bolzano Medal.

In 2003, asteroid 36060 was named in his honor by the International Astronomical Union. In 2005, Babuška was awarded the Honorary Medal "De Scientia Et Humanitate Optime Meritis;” received the ICAM Congress Medal (Newton Gauss, 2016); and he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering. He was also a member of the Academy of Medicine, Engineering, and Sciences of Texas.

“Ivo was the consummate gentleman and scholar, whose unending inquisitiveness and curiosity benefited all of us lucky enough to have known him,” said Robert D. Moser, deputy director at the Oden Institute and professor of mechanical engineering. “He taught all of us in the institute, faculty, researchers and students alike, about science, mathematics and life. We are enriched for having known him and we are now poorer for his passing. Ivo will be sorely missed.”

Babuška’s wife, Renata, preceded him in death in 2020. He is survived by their two children, Lenka (Josh), and Vit (Katie), and several grandchildren. A memorial service will be held later this year in Austin, TX.