Peter Carpenter, 1942-2008

May 8, 2008

As an expert in fluid mechanics, Peter Carpenter's research took him into areas as diverse as butterflies' flight and the swimming of dolphins.

After a degree at the University of London, where he developed a lifelong love of jazz, he moved to the US, studying as a postgraduate at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio.

He then returned to Britain as a research assistant at the University of Manchester before lecturing at the University of Exeter, where he stayed for 17 years.

In 1990 he joined the University of Warwick as professor of mechanical engineering, and was head of the civil and mechanical engineering division for a decade, retiring last year.

Duncan Lockerby, assistant professor of engineering at Warwick, was taught by Professor Carpenter as an undergraduate and PhD student. "He was extremely sharp with a very gymnastic mind; he could jump from one very specific niche area to another without breaking his stride, which was very impressive," he recalled.

"He was just as comfortable being deeply theoretical as he was with practical problem-solving, and he was an intuitive and unselfish manager who instilled confidence and really cared about the professional development of his PhD students. He would come in and say, 'I was thinking about your problem while I was shaving', and it would turn out that he hadn't just thought about it, he'd solved it."

As a researcher with broad interests in his field, Professor Carpenter made many significant contributions to fluid mechanics over a long career.

One of his particular research interests was boundary-layer flow, an area he worked in over 25 years, which is key to reducing power consumption in aeroplanes, ships and other vehicles by limiting drag forces from air or water.

It was a related area of his work, on biomechanics, that sparked his interest in dolphins. In 1936 zoologist James Gray estimated that swimming dolphins require about seven times the power output of any other mammal in order to reach their high speeds.

As this assessment seemed implausible, theories arose that dolphins were able to control the boundary-layer flow around their bodies to reduce the drag of the water.

Professor Carpenter argued that Gray's estimates were inaccurate and went on to identify a means by which the dolphin's cutaneous ridges might explain this paradox.

Continuing the zoological theme, his interest in aeronautical and aerospace engineering also saw him publish research on butterflies in gliding flight.

He died aged 65 on 21 April after a long period of illness with cancer and is survived by his wife, Sally, and his three children.

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