October 9, 2008
Vol. 28 No. 2

current issue
archive / search
Chronicle RSS Feed

    Platzman pioneered storm-surge forecasting, had passion for Chopin

    University meteorologist George W. Platzman, who pioneered the field of storm-surge forecasting, died Saturday, Aug. 2 at the University Medical Center, where he had been hospitalized for a heart ailment. He was 88.

    Platzman, Professor Emeritus in Geophysical Sciences, specialized in dynamical meteorology and oceanography, including investigations of numerical weather prediction and storm surges. He became interested in storm surges when a 6-foot surge hit Chicago’s Montrose Harbor on June 26, 1954, with fatal results. High winds blowing over expansive bodies of water cause storm surges.

    “George was one of the founders of modern meteorology, who transformed weather forecasting from qualitative guesswork to quantitative science,” said Akira Kasahara, a senior research associate at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. “I highly regard George, not only as an accomplished scientist, but as a man who had judgment that I could always trust.”

    One of Platzman’s Chicago colleagues, Noboru Nakamura, remembers Platzman as a man of gentle manners who maintained a sharp mind until the end of his life. Nakamura ranks as “seminal” Platzman’s comprehensive review of the Rossby wave, a planetary-scale atmospheric oscillation that is critical to weather dynamics, and his series of papers on the ocean tides.

    “My personal favorite, however, is the transcript of the interview he conducted with Jule Charney—another prominent meteorologist of his generation—as he was dying in 1980 of lung cancer,” said Nakamura, Associate Professor in Geophysical Sciences and the College. “This article appeared in the American Meteorological Society’s monograph, The Atmosphere—A Challenge, 1990, and brings out a first-hand view of the dawn of modern meteorology.”

    Early in his career, Platzman helped formulate the first computer weather forecast, carried out in 1950 on the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer in Aberdeen, Md. At the time, he was working as a consultant to the Meteorology group of the Electronic Computer Project at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.

    Platzman’s personal interests included collecting early printed editions of musical compositions by Frédéric Chopin and items pertaining to the history of Victorian science. In the 1960s, he established the Rose K. Platzman Memorial Collection at the University Library in honor of his mother, a piano teacher. The collection consists of early editions of works by romantic composers.

    Chopin soon became the focus of the collection, which grew to include nearly 500 items (http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/spcl/chopin.html)/. The Library’s Web site, Chopin Early Editions, includes digitized versions of all scores in the Chopin Collection (http://chopin.lib.uchicago.edu/).

    Platzman also was the author of A Descriptive Catalogue of Early Editions of the Works of Frédéric Chopin in the University of Chicago Library (second edition, 2003). He issued an updated online version of that publication in 2006: http://gwpstudies.net/chopin-catalog/. He also issued an online description of a collection of autographed letters of 19th-century scientists in 2008: http://gwpstudies.net/collections-letters/.

    Platzman was born April 19, 1920, in Chicago. He received an A.B. in mathematics and physics from the University in 1940, and an M.A. in mathematics and physics from the University of Arizona in 1941.

    After the United States entered World War II, he studied meteorology at Chicago, where he taught the subject to Air Corps cadets in 1943 and 1944. He married Harriet M. Herschberger Platzman on Nov. 30, 1945. She died in 1985.

    Platzman earned his Ph.D. in meteorology from the University in 1947, and in 1948, he joined the faculty of the University’s Meteorology Department. That department merged with the Geology Department in 1961 to form the Department of Geophysical Sciences, of which Platzman served as chairman from 1971 to 1974. Platzman retired as Professor Emeritus in 1990.

    As a Guggenheim Fellow at Imperial College London, from 1967 to 1968, he conducted research on wind dynamics in the ocean and atmosphere. He was elected a fellow of the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences.

    Nephews Loren Platzman of Atlanta, Ga., and Kenneth Platzman of Glenview, Ill., and niece Elena Folkerts, of Key Biscayne, Fla., survive Platzman.