Sidney Self, former professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford, dies at 89

A physicist and engineer with a reputation for finding elegant solutions to complex problems, Sidney Self is remembered for incisive research and generous mentoring.

Sidney Self, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering at Stanford University, was renowned for finding simple answers to essential, long-standing problems in physics and engineering. Through his example and empathetic mentorship, he inspired generations of graduate students to work from fundamentals and seek elegant answers. Self passed away in San Mateo on Nov. 5 at the age of 89.

Sidney Self

Sidney Self (Image credit: Courtesy Self Family)

“I first met Sidney in 1984. When he invited me to join his research group, I was 2,000 miles from home and my first Christmas dinner at Stanford was with Sidney, Beryl and his kids – the hats and poppers made quite an impression,” said Self’s former graduate student Jon Ebert, who named his daughter after Sidney. “They were instantly family to me. Years later a good friend would suggest that I was ‘head-over-heels’ regarding Sidney. He was right, I was and am.”

Self was a problem-solver outside of work as well as during his time at Stanford, using his engineering prowess and solution-focused mindset to complete ambitious projects for his family and his community.

A special perspective

Self was born April 16, 1928, in East London. Always interested in physics, he won a prestigious physics scholarship to the University of Exeter (then called the University College of the South West of England). After graduating with a BS in physics in 1949, Self went to work for the UK Services Electronics Research Laboratory in Baldock, England, studying high-power microwaves and lasers. There, he met his future wife, Beryl Hackett. They were married in 1954.

In 1962, Self was hired as a lecturer at Cambridge University and received his MA in physics from that institution two years later. He earned his doctorate in physics from London University in 1965. That same year, he was invited by electrical engineer, inventor and applied physicist Gordon Kino to come to Stanford as a senior research associate in the Stanford University Institute for Plasma Research (SUIPR). Self had previously been a visiting research associate at Stanford in the Stanford Microwave Laboratory (what is now the Ginzton Laboratory).

Self’s son, Matthew, fondly recalls his father’s conspicuous commute style: For many years, people in and around campus could spot Self driving to and from Stanford in his white Mini, pipe in mouth.

Bridging the worlds of physics, engineering and other sciences, Self produced papers that displayed his talent for finding simple solutions to difficult problems through robust application of basic principles. Three of his most significant publications – addressing plasma physics, magneto-hydro-dynamic power generation and foundational understanding of laser beam focusing – have garnered over 800 citations.

Sidney Self and velocimeter

Professor Sidney Self, right, aligns a laser doppler velocimeter while a staff engineer looks on. (Image credit: Stanford News Service Archive)

“Sidney was a talented experimentalist with a firm grasp of theory,” said Sir Fredrick Crawford, a former professor of computer science at Stanford who worked with Self at SUIPR. “He was highly appreciated by the research students and associates with whom he worked, first in the Institute for Plasma Research and later in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. His numerous publications were models of clarity.”

Self was also well-known for his research on electrostatic precipitation, which is used to scrub fly ash from coal-fired power plants. Bijan Moslehi, a former graduate student, remembers Self, from within a cloud of his pipe tobacco smoke, declaring, “Ironically, we’re going to solve this pollution control problem.” In 1990, Self received an International Fellow Award from the International Society for Electrostatic Precipitation.

On the university level and to his students Self was a champion of responsible research funding, which he believed encouraged clever problem-solving.

“He often reminded his graduate students that good science can be done with ‘string and sealing wax,’ often citing the accomplishments of past British scientists such as Faraday, who made great discoveries on meager research budgets,” said Self’s colleague and friend Mark Cappelli, professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford. “This is advice that I now share with my own students.”

A builder of homes and community

Self applied his engineering skills to his personal life as well as his professional one, renovating and building two family homes. When a community where the family built a cabin was in need of a new water treatment plant and distribution center, Self studied to become a certified California Watermaster and then volunteered his time, researching, designing and overseeing that project.

After his retirement, Self and Cappelli had lunch nearly every week and he could often be found at the Faculty Club among a group of retired colleagues who jokingly referred to themselves as “the band of old geezers.” He enjoyed discussing the history of science and current events and took every opportunity to celebrate the achievements of fellow British scientists.

Self cared deeply for his students. They, in turn, stayed in close contact with their former mentor over the decades and, for the past three years, held an annual reunion.

“Sidney had a positive and profound impact on my direction and my life, professionally and beyond that, which I truly appreciate and will always remember. He was a great teacher, mentor and role model, and made his students feel as part of his extended family. There aren’t many cases where the former students keep getting together with their professor regularly, over three decades,” Moslehi said. “Even now that he’s passed away, the interaction amongst his students continues because of the way he linked us together.”

Self is survived by his daughter, Joanna Self of Oakland; his son, Matthew Self of Redwood City; and his granddaughters, Julie and Nika Self. His wife, Beryl, passed away in 2016.

A memorial service for Sidney Self will be held at the Stanford Faculty Club on Friday, Jan. 5, at 3:30 p.m. In lieu of gifts, the family has requested donations to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.