Professor Emeritus Michael Athans, pioneer in control theory, dies at 83

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MIT electrical engineering and computer science Professor Emeritus Michael Athans died peacefully on May 26 at his home in Clearwater, Florida, at the age of 83. 

Athans was born in Drama, Macedonia, Greece in 1937. He came to the United States in 1954 for a one-year exchange visit under the auspices of the American Field Service (AFS), and attended the Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley, California. His year in the AFS was a defining one. He fell in love with America during this time and decided to stay in the United States when his AFS year was over. He then went on to attend the University of California at Berkeley from 1955 to 1961, where he received his BS in 1958 (with highest honors), MS in 1959, and PhD in control in 1961.

Athans had a remarkable career in academia. A pioneer in the field of control theory, he helped shape modern control theory and spearheaded, together with students and colleagues, the field of multivariable control system design and the field of robust control. These fundamental contributions were made in the course of Athans’s long and deeply accomplished tenure at MIT, as a member of the technical staff at Lincoln Laboratory from 1961 to 1964, and as a Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science faculty member from 1964 to 1998.

According to John Tsitsiklis, the Clarence J. Lebel Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, who was also a student of Athans: “It is hard to overstate the impact and influence Mike had on the field of systems control theory. He led the development of central methodologies. He broadened the scope of the field. And he amplified his impact by supporting and nurturing a whole generation of researchers, including myself.”

He further influenced the field as a transformative director of the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS), which was called the Electronic Systems Laboratory when Athans took the helm in 1974. He recognized the promise of the systems and control field in a vast array of domains, the need for new methodologies geared toward large-scale systems, and the confluence of control and communications. In this spirit, Athans changed the lab’s name to LIDS in 1978, which remains the lab’s name today. This forward-looking choice reflected the lab’s intellectual expansion and the embrace of new domains, ranging from transportation to energy to economics and more.

Key to this expansion was groundbreaking work by Athans and colleagues that made multivariable control design into a practical engineering methodology that could be applied to complex, large-scale, distributed systems — which Athans saw, correctly, as the future of system design. This adaptation of control methodology, combined with ideas from communications, networks, optimization, and control, helped chart the lab’s course, and was a central achievement of Athans’s intellectual and professional leadership during his tenure as director, which ended in 1981.

Athans was not only a highly-accomplished researcher, but also an award-winning and dedicated educator: In what was the aspect of his work he cherished most, he mentored and supervised the theses of more than 100 graduate students over the course of his career; he developed a course on modern control theory, producing nearly 70 videotaped lessons that were critical to the training of hundreds of practicing engineers; and he co-authored three books, most notably “Optimal Control” (with Peter Falb), a foundational text that influenced generations of students. In addition, he transitioned his research by co-founding, in 1978, ALPHATECH in Burlington, Massachusetts, where he served as chair of the board of directors and chief scientific consultant.

Described by friends as a vital force, Athans guided his students with care and often touched the lives of his friends and colleagues in profound ways. “Mike was immensely important to me, especially at the start of my time on the faculty at MIT,” says Alan Willsky, the Edwin Sibley Webster Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and a former LIDS director. “He was exceptionally generous, providing me with travel support and opportunities to lead research programs early in my career.”

Willsky’s remembrance of Athans as a strong, generous presence has been echoed by many colleagues and former students, including Nils Sandell PhD ’74, who says “Michael was my PhD supervisor, ran LIDS when I was an MIT faculty member, and he was the founding chairman of ALPHATECH, where I was president. He was a great teacher with a highly entrepreneurial spirit and was a steadfast friend. I will miss him greatly.”

Upon retirement, Athans moved to Lisbon, Portugal, for 15 years and received a honoris causa doctorate from the Universidade Técnica de Lisboa in 2011. Upon returning from Portugal, Athans chose to live in Clearwater, Florida to be near his sons Brett and Sean, as well as his grandson Michael. 

Michael Athans was predeceased by his son John Athans Spodick. He is survived by his loving partner Lena Corsentino; sons Stephen Athans Spodick and his wife Kathleen of Holden, Massachusetts, Brett Athans of St. Petersburg, Florida, Sean Athans of St. Pete Beach, Florida, and Stavros Valavanis, of New York, New York; as well as four grandchildren — Ryan and Christopher Spodick of Burlington, Vermont, Nicholas Spodick of Holden, Massachusetts, and Michael Athans of St. Petersburg, Florida. He is also survived by his brother Sotiris Athanasiadis and wife Sofia of Thessaloniki, Greece, and their two children, Chrysa and Yannis.

He will be remembered for his leadership, kindness, sharp wit, strong will, and stories of growing up in Greece. Services are private.

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