Ira Dyer, professor emeritus of ocean engineering, dies at 91

Ira Dyer, professor emeritus of ocean engineering, died peacefully at his home on Oct. 9 at the age of 91.

Dyer’s distinguished career, with a specialty in acoustics, spanned over six decades. His seminal research had profound impacts in the fields of aeroacoustics, structural acoustics, and underwater acoustics.

Dyer was a valued educator and mentor for many students who are now prominent scientists, and he served as head of MIT's Department of Ocean Engineering (which later merged with the Department of Mechanical Engineering) for 10 years. He also served as president of the Acoustical Society of America and on numerous committees, blue ribbon panels, and advisory boards for government agencies and research companies.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1925, Dyer was the son of Frieda and Charles Dyer, who immigrated to the United States after being forced to flee the Pale of Settlement region of Russia. Dyer thrived as a student at Brooklyn Tech, where his scientific interests were nurtured. He served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, and studied at MIT under the GI bill following the war, receiving his PhD in physics in 1954. In 1949 Dyer married his sweetheart, Betty Schanberg of Clinton, Massachusetts. They were happily married for 68 years.

After his graduate studies, Dyer joined Bolt, Beranek, and Newman Inc., now BBN Technologies. He was hired by Leo Beranek, who would later say that Dyer was one of the three most important people responsible for the success of the company. In one of his first projects, Dyer designed, built, and tested an ultrasonic brain scanner. This system was intended to use active sonar to find brain tumors, and Dyer himself was the first person to undergo an ultrasonic brain scan. The system ended up only measuring bone thickness, but it paved the way for the ultrasonic scanners currently used in cardiology and gynecology.

Dyer later led others in an applied research division that investigated all aspects of sound and vibration in complex structures such as ships, submarines, aircraft, and spacecraft, which resulted in many publications in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America (JASA). During the mid 1950s, Dyer helped design the U.S. Navy X-1 submarine, a small four-person diesel-electric sub with a very quiet radiated noise mission. He designed an innovative "triple-stage isolation" engine-mounting system that significantly quieted the vehicle, allowing the submarine to pass sound restrictions. The isolation concept led the way for the U.S. Navy to develop ultraquiet submarines, which provided significant advantages for U.S. submarine operations during the Cold War.

In 1960, the Acoustical Society of America honored Dyer’s early work with its Biennial Award, a recognition to scientists under 35 for their outstanding contributions to acoustics.

In 1971, Dyer became head of the MIT Department of Ocean Engineering, which eventually merged with the Department of Mechanical Engineering in 2005. At its helm, he led the department into new areas of ocean engineering that emphasized learning about the ocean environment. Later, Dyer was named the Weber-Shaughness Professor of Ocean Engineering. His expertise and graduate course in ocean acoustics were legendary; he was a consummate professor, both as a lecturer and one-on-one, with a clarity that inspired his students.

In July of 1973, Dyer became director of the Sea Grant Program at MIT. Under his leadership, the Sea Grant Program, created to stimulate research and wise use of the oceans, became a model program, and was widely emulated. Dyer also nurtured other new subjects in ocean acoustics, especially in conjunction with the MIT-Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program. For many years Dyer played a major role in advising, researching, and designing anti-submarine warfare systems for the Navy, keeping our nation safe during the Cold War.

Dyer made many seminal contributions to acoustics that were published in JASA. His article on the scintillation of ocean ambient noise is still one of the most cited today, as are his significant contributions to structural acoustics, reverberation, and propagation of sound in the sea. The programs Dyer established in these technical areas were international in scope.

Beginning in 1978, Dyer led and participated in six Arctic field programs. The first, the Canadian Basin Arctic Reverberation Experiment, imaged the entire Arctic basin with acoustics, providing evidence of seamounts. He and his students developed a taxonomy of ice noise events that has been fundamental for understanding Arctic noise. In the 1990s, Dyer resumed his research on structural acoustics that influenced contemporary submarine designs: He contributed to one high-level Navy technical advisory committee that led to the contemporary submarine sonar signal-processing suite.

Dyer was a fellow of the Acoustical Society of America and of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers; a member of the National Academy of Engineering; and a visiting fellow of Emmanuel College at Cambridge University. He was the recipient of many awards and honors in his long and distinguished career; in 1996 he was awarded the Per Bruel Gold Medal by the Acoustical Society of America, its highest honor.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Dyer and his wife, Betty, worked with the organization Action of Soviet Jewry to help place Soviet refugees in appropriate jobs, and they also sponsored a newly arrived family. Dyer was also a longtime philanthropist, with gifts benefiting medical research, the arts, community causes, MIT, and Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.

As an independent research consultant during the past 20 years, Dyer served on the board of directors and provided expertise to local ocean acoustic consulting firms founded by some of his former students. He was instrumental in helping to solve a pump vibration problem at the Deer Island Sewer Treatment facility; this problem impacted the construction completion schedule, and the solution allowed the project, a major construction project to eliminate Boston Harbor pollution, to move forward and the pump to operate safely.

Dyer’s joy was in challenging conventional thinking and being challenged by colleagues and students. If one of his students would say, “The data don’t agree with the theory,” Dyer would wag his finger and say, “No, no . . .  The theory does not agree with the data!” Meetings with Dyer are still recalled with gusto. He challenged all to continuously learn and acquire knowledge. He took great pleasure in family and friends, and he will be deeply missed.

Dyer is survived by his wife, Betty; son Samuel Dyer and daughter-in-law Barbara; daughter Debora Dyer Mayer and son-in-law John; and three grandchildren: Ethan Dyer, Charley Mayer, and Owen Mayer.

Individuals wishing to make a donation in Dyer’s memory can do so to the following: Parents and Researchers Interested in Smith-Magenis Syndrome (PRISMS), which supports those with a genetic disorder that Dyer’s oldest grandson was born with; Care Dimensions, the North Shore hospice that was wonderful and loving to the Dyer family; or the Charles and Frieda Dyer Memorial Fund (3413500), a tuition scholarship at MIT established by Ira and Betty in honor of Dyer's parents.