Dr Paul R. Garabedian was a mathematician whose work may not have solved any technical problems on its own, but eventually led to fuel-efficient wings:
In the 1960s and '70s, aerospace engineers tried to solve the problem by seeking exact mathematical equations or relying on intuition. Dr. Garabedian, who started his career as a pure mathematician working on partial differential equations, was one of the first to realise that computer simulations could provide accurate-enough approximations.
Indeed, his computer simulations showed it was possible to design a wing that produced no shock waves at all.
"That had quite a lot of impact around the industry," said Antony Jameson, an engineering professor at Stanford who collaborated with Dr. Garabedian on the wing work.
Dr. Garabedian's technique produced wings that were "shock free" for only specific values of speed and lift, so his shock-free wing designs were of limited practical use for aerospace engineers and never became the basis for the actual design of airplanes. Nonetheless, the fact that there was a shock-free solution "changed people's thinking," Dr. Jameson said.
Dr Garabedian lost a battle to prostate cancer on May 13. [NYT]