Silas D. Alben

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Silas D. Alben
Residence Atlanta, Georgia
Nationality American
Fields Biomechanics
Numerical methods
Control theory
Institutions Georgia Institute of Technology
University of Michigan
Alma mater New York University
Harvard University
Doctoral advisor Michael Shelley

Silas D. Alben is an American mathematician and an Assistant Professor in the School of Mathematics at the University of Michigan. Alben is the recipient of the 2005 Andreas Acrivos Dissertation Award in Fluid Dynamics, and works in biomechanics and biologically inspired systems.



Silas Alben attended Harvard College where he received in 1999 A.B. degrees in Mathematics and Physics, magna cum laude.[1] At Harvard, Alben served as a photographer for the Harvard Crimson and worked as a research assistant at the Harvard University High Energy Physics Lab. Alben interned at the Weizmann Institute of Science, where he implemented artificial neural networks to find better amino acid contact potential for proteins, and was a National Science Foundation fellow with the University of Michigan High Energy Spin Physics Group. In the summer of 1998, Alben worked as a research assistant at the Santa Fe Institute.[2]

Following his studies at Harvard, Alben spent a year teaching high school physics in Mexico City.[1] In 2000, he joined the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University, where he received a Ph.D. in Mathematics in 2004. His thesis Drag Reduction by Self-Similar Bending and a Transition to Forward Flight by a Symmetry-Breaking Instability was advised by Michael Shelley,[3] and received the 2005 Andreas Acrivos Dissertation Award, a prestigious award given by the American Physical Society to recognize achievements in fluid dynamics. The citation reads: "for elegant mathematical and numerical analysis of fluid-structure interaction to elucidate deformation-induced drag reduction of flexible membranes in a wind and induction of forward flight by the symmetry-breaking flapping of wings".[4]


After receiving his Ph.D., Alben returned to the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard as a NSF Mathematical Sciences Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer.[5] In 2007 Alben joined the faculty of the Georgia Institute of Technology as an Assistant Professor, and he is currently a member of the Center for Biologically Inspired Design.[6]


Alben's research focuses on problems arising in biomechanics and material science, and consists of the "modeling, theoretical analysis and development of numerical methods, with the general goal of obtaining new physical insight into these problems".[7] Alben has collaborated with mathematicians, physicists, and biologists in these areas.

Flexible structures[edit]

As a graduate student at NYU, Alben worked with Jun Zhang and Michael Shelley in investigating the dynamics of flexible structures and how such structures can become more aerodynamic by altering their shape. In this study, experiments visualized a short glass fiber deforming in fluid flow, and analysis showed how the fiber can reduce the drag force exerted by the fluid by changing its shape. This work was published 2002 in Nature under the title Drag Reduction Through Self-Similar Bending of a Flexible Body,[8] and was the subject of various news articles in periodicals including The New York Times[9] and others.[10] A continuation of this work titled How flexibility induces streamlining in a two-dimensional flow[3] received the 2004 Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) Student Paper Prize.[11]


A humpback whale

As a Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard, Alben collaborated with Ernst A. van Nierop and Michael P. Brenner in a paper titled "How Bumps on Whale Flippers Delay Stall: An Aerodynamic Model".[12] This paper addressed an interesting problem in biology and physics which deals with the humpback whale's agility due to bumps on the leading edges of their flippers. The paper gave a mathematical model for this hydrodynamic phenomenon. This result, featured in MIT's Technology Review[13] and Nature,[14] provides a theoretical basis for potential improvements in using bumps for more stable airplanes, more agile submarines, and more efficient turbine blades.


In 2007, Alben investigated (with Michael P. Brenner) the self-assembly of a 3D structures from flat, elastic sheets. This experiment, featured on New Scientist,[15] presented a new technique in nano construction; previously, the transformation of flat sheets to 3D structures were performed by random formation, but in this study, the addition of biases into the design of the sheets gave the possibility of predicting the resulting shape.

Honors and awards[edit]

  • Andreas Acrivos Dissertation Award in Fluid Dynamics (2005)
  • National Science Foundation Mathematical Sciences Postdoctoral Fellow award (2004)
  • SIAM Student Paper Prize (2004)
  • Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Research Fellow (2011)


  1. ^ a b APS biography of Silas Alben
  2. ^ Santa Fe Institute biography of Silas Alben
  3. ^ a b Alben, S. (2004). Drag reduction by self-similar bending and a transition to forward flight by a symmetry breaking instability. 
  4. ^ Andreas Acrivos Dissertation Award
  5. ^ NSF Mathematical Sciences Postdoctoral Fellow award - Silas Alben
  6. ^ Georgia Tech Center for Biologically Inspired Design
  7. ^ Silas Alben
  8. ^ Alben, S.; Shelley, M.; Zhang, J. (2002). "Drag reduction through self-similar bending of a flexible body". Nature 420 (6915): 479–481. Bibcode:2002Natur.420..479A. doi:10.1038/nature01232. PMID 12466836. Retrieved 2008-06-29. 
  9. ^ Nature's Secret to Building for Strength: Flexibility
  10. ^ NYU scientists show the benefits of being flexible
  11. ^ SIAM Student Paper Prize
  12. ^ Van Nierop, E.A.; Alben, S.; Brenner, M.P. (2008). "How Bumps on Whale Flippers Delay Stall: An Aerodynamic Model". Physical Review Letters 100 (5): 54502. Bibcode:2008PhRvL.100e4502V. doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.100.054502. 
  13. ^ Whale-Inspired Wind Turbines
  14. ^ Fluid dynamics: Lifting a whale
  15. ^ Self-assembly could simplify nanotech construction

External links[edit]