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Duke professor Adrian Bejan wins prestigious Benjamin Franklin Medal

Adrian Bejan, J.A. Jones professor of mechanical engineering, has honorary degrees from 11 countries and was once a star Romanian basketball player. 

Now, Bejan is adding a prestigious award in engineering to his resume.

Bejan was awarded the 2018 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Mechanical Engineering by the Franklin Institute for his work on "constructal theory, which predicts natural design and its evolution in engineering, scientific and social systems,” according to the Institute. Bejan has previously used this law to explain the physics behind wealth inequality, the college ranking system and the appeal of sports cars.

Bejan will be the first person to win this medal while being a professor at Duke. Past winners of Franklin Institute awards include Noam Chomsky, Stephen Hawking and Max Planck.

“With the constructal law, I have been predicting the evolution of airplanes, the evolution of helicopters, the evolution of the condensers for power plants throughout the history of these contrivances,” Bejan said.

The constructal law states that “for a finite-size system to persist in time (to live), it must evolve in such a way that it provides easier access to the imposed currents that flow through it.” As Bejan explained on an appearance on Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman, the constructal law explains ubiquitous branching designs in nature.

Bejan said that he has worked on and received awards for the constructal law for several decades, so the award was “a complete surprise, but not surprising.”

However, Bejan’s career path has surprising origins. He explained that he grew up under communism in Romania, and becoming a professional basketball player was one way to escape.

“These stories you read about North Korea is what I was raised in,” Bejan said. “My parents were against the regime—they were both imprisoned. In the school and in the street, there is all this propaganda. At home, I can see the truth—what’s happening to my family. The school boy has a choice, to go with this flow or with this flow, meaning to go and be one of these people who salutes at the parade, cheers the regime...or to try to stay away from it.”

He explained that in order to be left alone by the regime, you had to be a champion of some kind. Bejan was a champion at both math and basketball. He won a special mathematics contest that awarded a scholarship to study abroad, but at the time he was also a member of the national select basketball team.

Later on, Bejan went to go study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees. However, he did not begin developing his constructal law until after he began his teaching career.

Years later, Bejan currently teaches a course on constructal law, which one student said was quite impressive.

“It is always intriguing when the textbook is written by the professor himself, and even more so that Dr. Bejan created the theory of constructal law,” junior Kevin Gehsmann wrote in an email. “He also has an immense number of publications, several of which he has shared with us to emphasize his lectures.”

When asked if there were bigger awards in the future—like a Nobel prize—Bejan pulled out a colorful French magazine from his shelf and shared an anecdote.

“Fifteen years ago, the constructal law was the cover story of the French-language equivalent of Scientific American,” Bejan said. “So this was an instant hit in the Francophone world. And then I’m reading on the internet, these people who comment on that story referred to me as the Nobel laureate, meaning that I had already gotten the Nobel prize—as early as 2003!”

Bejan will receive the Benjamin Franklin Medal at a ceremony in Philadelphia April 19.


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