Father of modern earthquake risk analysis, and of a Nobel winner, dead at 69
C. Allin Cornell, 69, a professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering who played a pioneering role in earthquake shaking predictions and modern seismic building codes, died Dec. 14 at Stanford Hospital after a lengthy battle with cancer.
With one seminal paper in 1968, "Engineering Seismic Risk Analysis," Cornell's mathematical prowess nudged researchers toward quantifying—spelling out in numbers and probabilities—the risks and hazards of earthquakes.
"Before then, it was mostly, 'Well, let us make a good educated guess,'" said Stanford engineering Professor Emeritus Helmut Krawinkler, a colleague who studies how buildings respond to earthquakes.
"He was brilliant in terms of mathematical probability theory," a foreign subject to a lot of engineers at the time, said Greg Deierlein, a professor in Cornell's department. "It was pretty abstract math on the one hand, but connected to practicality."
Cornell's work dealt with seismic hazards—the probability of a certain degree of ground movement at a particular spot—and seismic risk, usually measured in terms of dollars or lives lost. He advised the U.S. Geological Survey on its seismic hazard maps, which have become guides for a wide variety of users, from prospective homebuyers to urban planners.
Cornell is survived by his wife, Elisabeth Paté-Cornell, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford with similar research interests, and their two children, Phillip and Ariane Cornell. He also is survived by three children from an earlier marriage, Robert Cornell, Joan Fazzio and Eric Cornell.
Cornell had the rare joy of having one of his children win the Nobel Prize. Eric, a Stanford graduate (1985) like his father, won the 2001 Nobel Prize for physics. In an autobiography written for the Nobel committee, he recounted his father giving him physics brainteasers to solve when he had trouble sleeping. The puzzles didn't help with sleep, but they put him "in the lifelong habit of thinking about technical issues at all sorts of random moments in my daily life, and not only (or even primarily) during scheduled 'thinking time.'"
Carl Allin Cornell was born in 1938 in Mobridge, S.D. He received his three degrees at Stanford: an undergraduate degree in architecture (1960), and master's (1961) and doctoral (1964) degrees in civil engineering. He was on the faculty at MIT from 1966 to 1983 before returning to Stanford as a research professor.
Cornell's earthquake work led to his being elected a fellow of the American Geophysical Union, an honor usually bestowed on geophysicists. "It's really rare for a card-carrying engineer to get elected to the AGU,'' said Tom Hanks, a geophysicist and earthquake expert at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park.
"He rose to the level of elder statesman, a seminal figure,'' said Dick Luthy, the department chair of Civil and Environmental Engineering. In addition to his building-safety work, Cornell was known for studying the risk to offshore oil platforms from earthquakes, strong winds and waves. He also was a consultant to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and officials there had sought his advice in recent years as Washington considered a resurgence of nuclear power, said his colleague, Professor Anne Kiremidjian.
"He just loved working on new and different problems. He loved his family, he loved music, he loved to talk about politics," she said.
"He just demanded respect with his presence. People just wouldn't dare talk nonsense around him. You had to be alert and on your toes."
Cornell was a member of the National Academy of Engineering and was the 2003 recipient of the George W. Housner Medal, the highest honor of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute.
His book, Probability, Statistics and Decision for Civil Engineers, written with Jack Benjamin and published in 1970, opened up new ways of thinking for an entire generation of civil and structural engineering students.
Deierlein, who worked in the Blume Earthquake Engineering Center with Cornell, was talking to a student in his office one afternoon this week when a caller asked about Cornell. "We're missing him at this moment," Deierlein said, "because we need someone to explain the math to us."
Private family services for Cornell were held Dec. 18. A public memorial service is being planned for February. In addition to his wife and children, he is survived by two sisters, Joan Scheel of Santa Rosa, Calif., and Bonnie Bassinger of Edna, Minn.