Roger W. Brockett, 1938-2023
ISR founding and permanent faculty member Roger Ware Brockett passed away March 19, 2023, after suffering a series of cardiac events. He had been hospitalized since October 2022 after sustaining serious injuries in a fall. Born Oct. 22, 1938, Brockett was 84 at the time of his death.
Brockett was the youngest of seven children of Roger Lawrence Brockett and Grace Esther (Patch) Brockett. He grew up on a farm in Seville, Ohio, where hard work, self-sufficiency, and stoicism were everyday virtues. In 1960, he married Carolann Riske, whom he had met in eighth grade, and who survives him. He also is survived by his son, Douglas of Menlo Park, Calif., Douglas's wife, Rei (Chen); and their children, Roger Jensen, Jane, and Helen; his son, Erik of New York City; his daughter-in-law, Louise (Brewster) Brockett of New York City; and her children, William, John, Thomas, and Roger Ware, II; as well as his brother, Richard, of Garrettsville, Ohio, and his wife, Mary Ann (Ross). Brockett’s eldest son, Mark, of New York City, predeceased him.
Career and honors
Upon earning his PhD from Case Western Reserve University, Brockett began his academic career at MIT. After six years, he joined Harvard University, where he taught from 1969 to 2011 and was the An Wang Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering. Brockett founded the Harvard Robotics Laboratory in 1983. Upon his retirement, he became a Professor Emeritus at Harvard.
He advised 62 doctoral candidates, many of whom became leading professors. His students included two of ISR’s founding faculty, Distinguished University Professor John S. Baras (ECE/ISR) and Professor P. S. Krishnaprasad (ECE/ISR).
Baras called Brockett a “giant” who “left a huge and lasting impact” in electrical engineering, control and robotics.
“The freedom of thought that Roger exemplified was something he strongly encouraged in all his students,” Krishnaprasad noted. “The value he placed on this and the cultivation of taste in research has served me well all these years. I remain most grateful to Roger for these and other lessons.”
Brockett guest-taught at universities around the globe. He authored or co-authored several hundred scholarly papers. His textbook, Finite Dimensional Linear Systems, is considered a classic. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, a Fellow of IEEE, and received dozens of awards and honors including the Donald P. Eckman Award, the Richard E. Bellman Control Heritage Award, the IEEE Control Systems Science and Engineering Award, the Rufus Oldenburger Medal, and the Giorgio Quazza Medal for lifetime achievement.
“We will all miss Roger very much as a teacher, mentor, friend, a visionary person that inspired so many, and for his generous and optimistic personality,” Baras said.
What Roger Brockett meant to me as teacher, mentor, and friend
By P. S. Krishnaprasad
Sifting through impressions and understanding evolved over nearly five decades, the enduring image of Roger for me is that of a free spirit. He was the least stuck person I have known. He navigated the landscape of his curiosity with both delight and discipline. I learned to appreciate this dynamism foremost.
When I arrived at Harvard in spring 1974, I did not know Roger or his scientific work. He was on leave, it was his Guggenheim Fellowship year, but he came to the Aiken Computation Lab regularly to see his graduate students. As I had a desk in the office his students shared, I was privy to some of the enthusiastic discussions Roger had with John Baillieul and Kuo Chiou on Lie algebras and J-indefinite spaces. Soon the magic of his use of geometric and topological thinking drew me in, and sometime later, I became his student. He gave me a problem to work on that gave free rein to my abilities and pushed me well beyond.
The freedom of thought that Roger exemplified, was something he strongly encouraged in all his students. The value he placed on this and the cultivation of taste in research has served me well all these years. I remain most grateful to Roger for these and other lessons.
My remembrances of Roger Brockett
By John Baras
Roger Brockett was a great scientist, engineer, teacher, visionary thinker and trend setting pioneer. Above all he was a friendly, open, accessible, optimistic and supportive person.
From my very first days at Harvard I was impressed and I appreciated immensely his openness and accessibility. His willingness to sit down and discuss new ideas and problems, even ones appearing “crazy” or “impossible,” was unmatched. I still remember very fondly the start of the day whereby after “Good morning” he would ask “what problem or theorem are you working on today?” I have kept my notes from our meetings and his courses, and have often revisited them to find new ideas or new thinking about challenging problems.
His optimism, encouragement and curiosity were evident throughout his celebrated career, and were the main reason why so many people were inspired and mentored by him.
Roger was one of the last remaining polymaths. He persistently and fluently linked ideas and concepts from physics, chemistry, engineering, systems, control, optimization, biology, computational models and complexity, and quantum mechanics. A few seminal and famous examples are his introduction of Lie algebras in nonlinear systems, his breakthrough contributions to efficient matrix multiplication, his unexpected demonstration of solving combinatorial problems via analog computation, his deep work connecting stochastic control with key aspects of thermodynamics, his novel time optimal control of NMR spin systems. This unique characteristic is evidenced from the great diversity of challenging problems addressed by his many very successful students.
Another unique characteristic of Roger’s work was his balanced love for foundational theory and practical engineering implementation (“gadgetry”). A great example of the former is his classic textbook Finite Dimensional Linear Systems, and of the latter his innovative soft-fingered robotic hand and the founding of the Harvard Robotics Lab.
It was such a joy to work with him and enjoy this exchange of ideas without traditional disciplinary boundaries. Roger embraced with tremendous enthusiasm the effort to establish the Systems Research Center, now our Institute for Systems Research (ISR), jointly between the University of Maryland and Harvard. Since 1984 he worked tirelessly for its establishment and evolution, and contributed substantially to its research and educational accomplishments.
From a certain perspective—and given that several UMD faculty who were involved in the founding and development of ISR were his students—ISR could be considered a natural outgrowth of his visionary and cross-disciplinary thinking and ideas, including the key and foundational concepts emanating from “systems and control thinking and methodology.”
Roger was also a fun person to be with in social occasions, ranging from making ice cream in his backyard, to playing basketball and soccer, to student-faculty parties.
Personally, Roger had a major impact and influence on my education, thinking and career. There are two “research culture” characteristics that Roger taught me and that have stayed with me. First, to be “fearless” when addressing new and challenging research problems. Second, to appreciate and seek “simple and elegant solutions,” a manifestation of his profound love for the “aesthetic beauty” of the correct mathematics for a problem. His influence, legacy and teachings will stay with us forever. He will be missed by many and especially by us, his ISR colleagues.
Boston Globe obituary via legacy.com
Douglass Funeral Home obituary
Book available from the 1998 Harvard conference celebrating Roger Brockett's 60th birthday
In addition to many stimulating talks at the conference, Springer published a book about Professor Brockett's research highlights and the later developments emerging from them, both his own and those of others. The entire book is still available for purchase, and the front matter of about 40 pages is downloadable. The link to Mathematical Control Theory's table of contents is at https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-1-4612-1416-8#toc
ISR is grateful to P. S. Krishnaprasad for this information and these links.
Special issues of the journal Communications in Information and Systems published in 2008 for Roger Brockett's 70th birthday
In 2008, the journal Communications in Information and Systems published multiple special issues to mark the 70th birthday of Roger Brockett. Below is a relevant link (to the 2-page preface) with download option:
An Engineering and Technology History wiki interview
John Baillieul talks with Roger Brockett, available on You Tube.
IEEE Foundation's IEEE Roger Brockett Memorial Fund
To honor Roger’s legacy and perpetuate his memory, Roger’s family has partnered with the IEEE Control Systems Society (CSS) and the IEEE Foundation to establish the IEEE Roger Brockett Memorial Fund. The Fund will provide long-term support for scholarly activities in the field of control systems. | Donation page at IEEE Foundation | Additional information |
ISR is grateful to P. S. Krishnaprasad for this information and these links.Watch the interview with Roger Brockett
Roger Brockett at Harvard
Brockett's official Harvard photo, taken circa 2014 by Eliza Grinnell of Harvard SEAS Communications.
2022 American Control Conference
This June 2022 photo was taken at the American Control Conference. Left to right: Miroslav Krstic, Masayoshi Tomizuka, John Baras, Roger Brockett, Arthur Krener, Galip Ulsoy, Eduardo Sontag. Photo courtesy John Baras.
2022 American Control Conference
Roger Brockett and alumnus Fumin Zhang (ECE PhD 2004) look at a robotic blimp at the American Control Conference (ACC) in Atlanta in 2022. Zhang, a professor of School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Georgia Tech, is currently on leave and serving as Director of the Robotics Institute at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Photographer unknown. Photo courtesy Fumin Zhang via P. S. Krishnaprasad, Zhang's advisor at UMD.
Roger Brockett and Steve Marcus, 2019
This photo of Roger Brockett and Professor Emeritus Steve Marcus (ECE/ISR) was taken at MIT in 2019. Photo courtesy Steve Marcus.
ISR 30th anniversary, 2015
At the ISR 30th anniversary event in 2015. Left to right: Roger Brockett, P. S. Krishnaprasad, alum Eric Justh (ECE PhD 1998), alum Kevin Galloway (ECE PhD 2011), student Biswadip Dey (ECE PhD 2015), and student Udit Halder (ECE PhD 2019). Photo credit: Rebecca Copeland.
ISR 30th anniversary, 2015
At the ISR 30th anniversary in 2015. Left to right, Herb Rabin, John Baras, William "Brit" Kirwan, Roger Brockett. Photo credit: Al Santos.
Dr. Brockett visits ISR, 2015
Dr. Brockett visits ISR during the 30th anniversary celebration. Photo credit: Rebecca Copeland.
Intelligent Servosystems Laboratory, 2015
In this photo from 2015, Dr. Brockett visits with students in the Intelligent Servosystems Laboratory, directed by P. S. Krishnaprasad. Left to right are Dr. Krishnaprasad's students Kenneth Miltenberger, Jr., from the U.S. Coast Guard (ECE MS 2016); Udit Halder (ECE PhD 2019); Yunlong Huang (ECE PhD 2017); Vidya Raju (ECE PhD 2019); and Dr. Brockett. Photo credit: Rebecca Copeland.
Dr. Brockett at Harvard in 2011
Dr. Brockett is at work at Harvard in this uncredited photo from 2011.
Rudolf Kalman and Roger Brockett, 1997
This photo of Rudolf Kalman and Roger Brockett was taken at the Speyer Cathedral in 1997 during the 60th birthday celebration for Paul Fuhrmann at Kaiserslautern. Photo courtesy John Baras.
Brockett, Gohberg and Baras in 1990
Left to right: Roger Brockett, Israel Gohberg and John Baras at Rudolf Kalman's 60th birthday conference in Frascati, Italy (1990). Photo courtesy John Baras.
Making ice cream in Roger Brockett's backyard, 1977
John Baras and Paul Fuhrmann in Roger Brockett's Lexington, Mass., backyard, making ice cream in 1977. Photo courtesy John Baras.