Lee Segel

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Lee Segel
Lee segel.jpg
Lee Segel (2004)
Born Newton, Massachusetts
Fields applied mathematics
Institutions Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Weizmann Institute of Science
Alma mater MIT
Doctoral advisor C. C. Lin

Lee Aaron Segel (1932–2005) was an applied mathematician primarily at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the Weizmann Institute of Science.[1] He is particularly known for his work in the spontaneous appearance of order in convection, slime molds and chemotaxis.


Lee Segel was born in 1932 in Newton, Massachusetts to Minna Segel, an art teacher, and Louis Segel, a partner in the Oppenheim-Segel tailors. Louis Segel was something of an intellectual as could be seen in his house from, e.g., the Kollwitz and Beckman prints and the Shakespeare and Co. edition of 'Ulysses', all purchased in Europe in the 1930s. Both parents were of Jewish-Lithuanian origin, of families that immigrated to Boston near the end of the 19th century. The seeds of Segel's later huge vocabulary could partly be seen to stem from his father's reading (and acting on) a claim that the main effect of a prep school was on the vocabulary of its graduates. Segel graduated from Harvard in 1953, majoring in mathematics. Thinking he might want to go into the brand-new field of computers, he started graduate studies in MIT, where he concentrated on applied mathematics instead.

In 1959 he married Ruth Galinski, a lawyer and a distant cousin, in her native London, where they spent the first two years of their wedded life. Later 4 children were born (Joel '61, Susan '62, Daniel '64 and Michael '66), and still later, 18 grandchildren. In 1973 the family moved to Rehovot, Israel.

He died in 2005.


Lee Segel received a PhD from MIT in 1959, under the supervision of C. C. Lin. In 1960, he joined the Applied Mathematics faculty at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. In 1970 he spent a sabbatical at Cornell Medical School and the Sloan-Kettering Institute. Segel moved from RPI to the Weizmann Institute in 1973, where he became the chairman of the Applied Mathematics department, and later dean of the Faculty of Mathematical Sciences and chair of the Scientific Council. At Los Alamos National Laboratory he was a summer consultant to the theoretical biology group from 1984 to 1999, and he was named Ulam Visiting Scholar for 1992-93.


Rayleigh-Bénard Convection

In 1967 Segel and Scanlon[2] were the first to analyze a non-linear convection problem.[3] Segel's most quoted paper in this field was his last work in this field;[4] it was published in parallel with the work of Newell and Whitehead.[5] These papers gave an explanation of the seemingly spontaneous appearance of patterns - rolls or honeycomb cells - in liquid sufficiently heated from below (Bénard convection patterns). (Preceding this was the Turing pattern formation, proposed in 1952 by Alan Turing to describe chemical patterns.) Technically the tool was that of deriving "amplitude" equations from the full Navier-Stokes equations, simplified equations describing the evolution of a slowly changing wave amplitude of the roiling liquid; this amplitude equation was later described as the Newell-Whitehead-Segel equation.


Slime Mold (Mycetozoa Protozo)

With Evelyn Keller he developed a model for slime mold (Dictyostelium discoideum) dynamics[6] that was perhaps the first example of what was later called an "emergent system"; e.g. in Steven Johnson's 2001 book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software[7] slime mold is 'the main character'.[8] Slime mold amoeba can gang together into a single multicellular aggregate (akin to a multicellular organism) to find food; Keller and Segel showed that simple assumptions about secretion of an attractive chemical (cyclic AMP) to which identical amoeba-like cells are attracted could explain such behavior without positing any master cell that manages the procedure.

They also developed a model for chemotaxis.[6][9] Hillen and Painter say of it: "its success ... a consequence of its intuitive simplicity, analytical tractability and capacity to replicate key behaviour of chemotactic populations. One such property, the ability to display 'auto-aggregation,' has led to its prominence as a mechanism for self-organisation of biological systems. This phenomenon has been shown to lead to finite-time blow-up under certain formulations of the model, and a large body of work has been devoted to determining when blow-up occurs or whether globally existing solutions exist".[10]

A paper with Jackson[11] was the first to apply Turing's reaction-diffusion, to population dynamics. Lee Segel also found a way to explain the mechanism from a more intuitive perspective than had previously been done.


In 1975 Segel was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Mathematics in the Weizmann Institute. A central project was renewing the computer science aspect of the department by bringing simultaneously 4 young leading researchers whom he dubbed the 'Gang of Four' - David Harel (Israel Prize '04), Amir Pnueli (Turing Prize '96, Israel Prize '00), Adi Shamir (Turing Prize '02) and Shimon Ullman (Israel Prize '15).

Segel was the editor of the Bulletin of Mathematical Biology between 1986 and 2002.


Lee Segel was the author of:

  • Mathematics Applied to Continuum Mechanics (Classics in Applied Mathematics) (with additional material on elasticity by G. H. Handelman) [12]
  • Mathematics Applied to Deterministic Problems in the Natural Sciences (Classics in Applied Mathematics)by C. C Lin and Lee A. Segel.[13] This book was made the first volume in the SIAM Classics in Applied Mathematics series.
  • Modeling Dynamic Phenomena in Molecular and Cellular Biology[14] stemmed from his course in mathematical modelling that he taught for 20 years in the Weizmann Inst.

And Editor of:

  • Biological Delay Systems: Linear Stability Theory (Cambridge Studies in Mathematical Biology) [Paperback] N. MacDonald, C. Cannings, Frank C. Hoppensteadt and Lee A. Segel (Eds.) [15]
  • Mathematical models in molecular and cellular biology.[16]
  • Design Principles for the Immune System and Other Distributed Autonomous Systems (Santa Fe Institute Studies in the Sciences of Complexity Proceedings) [17]


Segel was the Ulam Visiting Scholar of the Santa Fe Institute for 1992-93. The Sixth Israeli Mini-Workshop in Applied Mathematics was dedicated to the his memory. Springer Press, in partnership with the Society for Mathematical Biology, funds Lee Segel Prizes for the best original research paper published (awarded every 2 years), a prize of 3,000 dollars for the best student research paper (awarded every 2 years), and a prize of 4,000 dollars for the best review paper (awarded every 3 years).[18] The Faculty of Mathematics and Computer Science at the Weizmann Institute awards a yearly Lee A. Segel Prize in Theoretical Biology.


  1. ^ Levin, Simon; Hyman, James M.; Perelson, Alan S. (10 March 2005). "Obituary: Lee Segel". SIAM News. 
  2. ^ Scanlon, J. W.; Segel, L. A. (1967). "Finite amplitude cellular convection induced by surface tension". J. Fluid Mech. 30: 149–162. Bibcode:1967JFM....30..149S. doi:10.1017/S002211206700134X. 
  3. ^ Koschmieder, E. L. (1993). Bénard cells and Taylor vortices. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-40204-2. 
  4. ^ Segal, L. A. (1969). "Distant Sidewalls Cause Slow Amplitude Modulation of Cellular Convection". J. Fluid Mech. 38: 203. Bibcode:1969JFM....38..203S. doi:10.1017/S0022112069000127. 
  5. ^ Newell, A. C.; Whitehead, J. A. (1969). "Finite bandwidth, finite amplitude convection". J. Fluid Mech. 38: 279–303. Bibcode:1969JFM....38..279N. doi:10.1017/S0022112069000176. 
  6. ^ a b Keller, E. F.; Segel, L. A. (March 1970). "Initiation of slime mold aggregation viewed as an instability". J. Theor. Biol. 26 (3): 399–415. doi:10.1016/0022-5193(70)90092-5. PMID 5462335. 
  7. ^ Johnson, Steven Berlin. Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 068486875X. 
  8. ^ Harvey Blume (November 19, 2001). "Of Slime Mold and Software". The American Prospect. Retrieved January 30, 2011. 
  9. ^ Keller, E. F.; Segel, L. A. (1971). "Model for chemotaxis". J Theor Biol 30: 225–234. doi:10.1016/0022-5193(71)90050-6. 
  10. ^ Hillen, T.; Painter, K.J. (Jan 2009). "A user's guide to PDE models for chemotaxis. Journal of Mathematical Biology". J Math Biol. 58 (1=2): 183–217. doi:10.1007/s00285-008-0201-3. 
  11. ^ Segel, L. A.; Jackson, J. L. (1972). "Dissipative structure: an explanation and an ecological example". Journal of Theoretical Biology 37: 545–559. doi:10.1016/0022-5193(72)90090-2. 
  12. ^ SIAM, Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics; Classics in Applied Mathematics 52 edition (January 4, 2007).
  13. ^ SIAM: Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (December 1, 1988) - an Amazon review states "Lin and Segel are demigods of the math textbook world"
  14. ^ Cambridge University Press (March 30, 1984)
  15. ^ Cambridge University Press; 1 edition (April 7, 2008)
  16. ^ Editor, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1980
  17. ^ Oxford University Press, USA; 1 edition (June 14, 2001)
  18. ^ "Prizes". The Society for Mathematical Biology. Retrieved January 30, 2011.