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Michael Emory '01: Going With The (Hypersonic) Flow

PhD candidate Michael Emory '01 studies computational fluid dynamics at Stanford

What does fast look like? Even as a kid, Michael Emory ‘01 knew. During summers in Tokyo visiting his grandmother, he watched with fascination as bullet trains whizzed by. “I didn’t understand why or how,” he says, “but I sort of knew that the shape, the sleek look influenced how fast it could go.”

Today Emory is a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering at Stanford University working in the field of computational fluid dynamics (CFD). That means he uses computer models to study how liquids and gases behave in motion — for example, how air flows around the nose of a speeding bullet train. His research is contributing to the development of, among other things, a hypersonic engine designed for flight at eight to 10 times the speed of sound. If all goes as planned, 20 years from now a trip across the world might take no more than a couple of hours.

Emory’s path to hypersonic propulsion began at Potomac, where a strong math background prepared him for a future in physics. “Society tells you math is going to be difficult, and if you’re good at it, you’re kind of a nerd.” But Mr. Harding’s math class sent a different message. One day during pre-calculus, an Upper School athlete stopped by to say hello. Emory remembers, “He was really tall, really big. There were rumors going around that he’d broken one of the backboards in the gym.” Mr. Harding said, “I’m teaching the quadratic equation. Do you remember it?” The tall guy said, “Of course,” and rattled it off, to which the class responded with gasps of awe and admiration.

Emory carried his math skills to Columbia University, where he earned a B.A. in math and a B.S. in mechanical engineering. “Calculus in college was a breeze,” he says. “That was certainly because of what we did in calculus and BC calculus at the high school.”

More surprisingly, the computer programming skills he picked up at Potomac also came into play. “Electrical engineering, computer science and mechanical engineering used to be very different things. Now with the way technology is progressing, you can’t just be an expert in one of these.” Not only must Emory understand the physics behind fluid flows, he also has to code the software that models those flows. “Programming is very different from the user experience,” says Emory. “My intro to programming class at Potomac was a good initial foray into seeing the other side.”

Computational modeling allows scientists to examine and test things that would be too expensive or impossible to test in an experimental situation. It’s especially useful in studies of something like space shuttle re-entry. “It’s just too expensive to fly up a hundred different designs and see which ones work best,” says Emory.

Emory focuses specifically on reducing uncertainties in these models. “The equation for how air behaves over a space ship right on the edge of the atmosphere isn’t going to be the same when the air is very dense near sea level,” he says. “I deal with how you account for uncertainties that stem from the fact that the equations you’re solving may no longer be applicable.”

Uncertainties about the future, however, are another story. When asked what’s in store for him or the world of scientific innovation, Emory hesitates to make a prediction. He does venture to guess that cloud computing will soon become very important. He says, “I think people who want it will have access to extremely high-performance computing clusters and resources.” One thing’s for sure: the pace of technological change astounds him. That’s saying a lot coming from a man who’s no stranger to fast-moving things.

Emory's path to hypersonic propulsion began at Potomac, where a strong math background prepared him for a future in physics. “Society tells you math is going to be difficult, and if you’re good at it, you’re kind of a nerd,” says Emory. But Mr. Harding’s math class sent a different message.