This weekend was reunion weekend for me. On Saturday I made the return journey to my alma mater, the University of Waterloo (i.e. I walked 10 minutes to the campus from my house), for the 20th reunion of my Engineering Class of 1988. Among the various events and activities, I had the pleasure of having a sitdown chat with Professor Peter H. O’N. Roe, retired professor of Systems Design Engineering (my undergrad department) at the University.
Among the handful of people whom I can say were truly influential in my life, Peter was definitely one of the big ones. Among his academic achievements, he was a pioneer in a then fairly obscure field called “physical systems modeling”. His research in the late 1950’s and into the 1960’s laid the foundation of a modeling school of thought centered at the department of Systems Design Engineering. The concept was based on linear graph theory and proposed a mathematical framework for formulating the differential equations for a wide range of lumped parameter systems. It was approached from day one as a universal formalism for developing models of any lumped parameter system domain with clearly defined constitutive relationships based on physics.
I recall Peter’s SD 252 course in my sophomore year. Because this concept was still miles away from mainstream among the scientific community, we had no textbook – just thick Cerlox®-bound course notes prepared by him. I have to be honest … not all of his lectures were the stuff of excitement and inspiration ;-) I passed the course though and moved on and took a whole range of courses that were based on more orthodox engineering modeling paradigms and the path eventually led to grad school and beyond.
Through it all though, I always maintained a soft spot in my heart for Peter’s work. There is always something very elegant and grand about any theory that attempted to provide a unified theoretical foundation for a complex area of study.
Fast forward to September 29, 2008. I am preparing for a series of presentations in Europe on MapleSim (MapleSim presentations constitute a large proportion of my time these days) and I reflect on what MapleSim is: a generalized modeling environment for physical systems. Due to its Maple-based computation architecture, it is able to deal efficiently with the common mathematical framework that transcends lumped parameter physical system domains. Its symbolic engine also automatically generates and optimizes the required model equations. Based on this simple description, any thinking person should sense the connection between MapleSim and pioneering works by people like Peter.
The connection is actually more explicit, however. One of MapleSim’s particular strengths is its abilities in multibody mechanics – i.e. robots, complex moving parts in cars, etc. MapleSim’s multibody engine, in my opinion, is truly at the head of the pack and produces models that outperform models developed by other systems. Not surprisingly MapleSim’s multibody engine is based on linear graph theory and its implementation can be traced directly back to the body of work generated by Peter and his colleagues in his department. Much of the fundamental work in MapleSim’s modern implementation of linear graph-theoretic modeling is based on the work of another accomplished alumnus of the department, Dr. John McPhee, whose research refined linear graph theory techniques for a wide range of mechanical and mechatronic systems and, just as importantly, figured out how the theory adapts to modern computational frameworks like Maple’s symbolic computing.
In 1963, Peter was the first student to receive a PhD from the then nascent University of Waterloo. Within a scant few decades, this university became a world-class university in engineering, computing, and mathematics. WATFOR, the first Internet search engines, the Blackberry, and of course, Maple were among the many direct spinoffs of this institution. The university consciously engineered and continued to refine its reputation as highly innovative, creative, and even maverick in its approach to research and education.
In 1987, I was having coffee in a lounge when Peter walked in. A few pleasantries and chit chatty moments later, he basically talked me into applying for grad school. This is a significant moment because on the surface (i.e. based on my transcript), I would not have been considered the ideal candidate for advanced degrees, but Peter saw that I had genuine interest and respect for the work of the department and gave me the benefit of the doubt that I had a few off-days during my undergrad years ;-) For that I am eternally grateful.
Today, through my job, I’m a direct beneficiary of Peter’s research, as we prepare to introduce to the global community of engineers, more effective approaches to modeling – made more effective through techniques that exploit both the computational and expressive power of mathematics and made feasible and practical through the farseeing work of leaders like Dr. Peter Roe and it thrills me to no end that our products are the ones that are taking his legacy to market.
Today, Peter keeps busy by serving as the elected Alderman in the local government, as an active member of the Board of Governors of Renison University College (on which I too have the pleasure of serving), and as the continuing director in the international student exchange programs for the University of Waterloo. Oh, I guess I forgot to mention that Peter was a pioneer in exchange education as well.This posting is my long-overdue statement of thanks to my friend Peter.