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Oscar Buneman, pioneer of computer simulation of space, dies at 79

STANFORD -- Oscar Buneman, Stanford University professor emeritus of electrical engineering and an authority on space physics and applied mathematics, died of cancer at his home in Los Altos Hills Sunday, Jan. 24. He was 79.

Buneman, who made an important contribution to the understanding of the cavity microwave magnetron, which was important to the Allies of World War II and is a component of microwave ovens today, was also noted among computational scientists for the Buneman algorithm. The algorithm he devised at Stanford in the early 1970s is used for solving Poisson's equation.

He was also a pioneer in the 1950s in using computers to simulate the activity of plasmas, matter consisting of atoms in a high state of agitation. Computer simulation of plasmas and other fluids now has become widespread in aerodynamics, substituting for wind tunnel testing.

Two years ago at an international conference, Buneman showed how to simulate solar wind by tracking individual particles of the wind and computing the effect on the earth's magnetosphere, colleagues said.

Although he became a professor emeritus in 1984, Buneman remained active in his department until recently, colleagues said.

"Until Christmas, he was a familiar sight in very brief shorts, a very deep tan and an ancient crash helmet cruising across campus on his racing bike," said Ronald Bracewell, professor emeritus of electrical engineering. "As an emeritus, his door was always open and he was most generous with help to colleagues and students."

An ardent backpacker and outdoors man, Buneman built one of the first solar houses in the area and until the winter rains began, he slept outside, his wife, Ruth, said. "He taught me a lot about the stars. Moving from Germany to England to Canada as a young man, he felt it was wonderful that the stars were constant."

A naturalized citizen of Great Britain, Buneman was born Sept. 28, 1913, in Milan, Italy, to German parents. He grew up in Hamburg, where he received a classical gymnasium education and completed two years of university work before he was discovered to be part of the Nazi resistance and was imprisoned by the Nazis for a year beginning in 1934, said his son Kelvin Buneman of San Francisco.

In 1935 the elder Buneman went to Great Britain, where he received bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in mathematics from the University of Manchester.

At Manchester, under the guidance of renowned numerical analyst Douglas Hartree, Buneman began using his computing abilities to simulate the magnetron, a device for generating powerful radar waves. He aided the understanding of it through computation of its electron orbits and fields, and the device became very important to Britain's defense.

"The magnetron made airborne radar possible, which made a big difference to the submarine war in the Atlantic and also in night bombing and bombing through clouds, " said Sidney Self, a professor emeritus of mechanical engineering who first met Buneman in England in the early 1950s.

"It has often been said that while the atomic bomb ended the war, radar won it."

From 1941 to 1944, Buneman was engaged in radar research for the British Admiralty, and he became a member of the British Mission to the Manhattan Project at the University of California-Berkeley in 1944 and 1945. He did atomic energy research in Canada and England from 1945 to 1950. He became a fellow of the American Physical Society in 1948 and the Cambridge Philosophical Society in 1950.

In 1950, he joined the faculty of Cambridge University, where he worked until 1960 on fundamental electrodynamics, hoping to produce safe nuclear energy through the fission process.

After coming to Stanford first as a visiting professor in 1957, he joined the Stanford faculty permanently in 1960. He directed some of his energy toward simulating space and fusion plasmas on the most advanced computers available while working on computational theory with Gene Golub, professor of computer science, and others.

In the early 1970s, Buneman "showed how to solve Poisson's equation in a very elegant and stable manner, which had an enormous impact on the scientific computing community," Golub said.

Buneman is survived by a sister, Gertrude Buneman, of Hamburg, Germany; his wife, Ruth, of Los Altos Hills; and sons Peter, a professor of computer science at the University of Pennsylvania; Michael of Frankfurt, Germany; Kelvin of San Francisco; and Paul of Mountain View.

A private cremation is being arranged by the Lima Family Mortuary in Sunnyvale through his membership in the Peninsula Funeral Society. The family prefers memorials be made in his name to the National Audubon Society, 700 Broadway, New York, N. Y. 10003-9501.



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