Distinguished
Alumni Award 2002: 
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If you prefer to wait until the paperback version of a top seller comes out, you need wait no longer for Quaternions and Rotation Sequences: A Primer with Applications to Orbits, Aerospace and Virtual Reality. Because of its popularity, the book that was predicted to become the standard reference for aerospace engineering has exhausted its fourth printing and will soon be out in paperback. That’s almost unheard of for a book that is intended for mathematicians, engineers and physicists and for the rest of us, even the title sounds like a foreign language. The success has astounded author Jack Kuipers, a retired Calvin math professor who many regard as the founder of virtual reality. He spent ten years typing every word of the 384page book and drew all 121 diagrams. The book, which was highly regarded at the time of its initial printing in 1998 and is available worldwide, makes quaternion algebra and resulting calculations involving rotating objects accessible to “aerospacetype people.” “People have written about quaternions before,” said Kuipers. “But a lot of what has been written is not very palatable. I’m an applied person, not a theoretician. That’s what makes this book different.” In fact, it’s Kuipers’ background, before spending 20 years teaching mathematics as Calvin, that makes his take on numbers and equations and formulas so unique. A 17year career
in industrial engineering helped Kuipers develop his skill in mathematical
modeling. His early career involved working for defense and aerospace
contractors to develop complex weapons systems for the U.S. Air Force. Much of the employment of Kuipers’ technology has been defense related, though he has worked persistently at finding more civilian uses for it. He is currently working on patenting a system that will make two aircrafts aware of each other even though they can’t see each other. “I didn’t expect my technology would be used so prominently in the military,” he said. “As I began my career I found it very interesting that it (the technology) could be used to support the rendezvous of satellites. Its primary focus is relating two bodies in space.” Yet, much of Kuipers’ work occurred during the Cold War. “You have to understand the mind of the nation,” he said. “We were worried about Russia and communism. We were very concerned about being able to respond if somebody attacked us.” Still it was talk of “kill ratios” and “kill efficiency” that led Kuipers to return to his alma mater in 1966. “I needed to get away from that. I had been moving in circles that I never wanted to get familiar with.” Kuipers graduated from Calvin in 1942 and it was here that he first realized his love for mathematics. “I’m not a scholar type,” said Kuipers. “I never expected to go to college, but when I couldn’t find a job that’s where I ended up.” In fact, he went
on to earn three additional degrees from the University of Michigan before
returning to Calvin to teach. Calvin allowed Kuipers to align mathematics with his faith and teach it in that way. For example, in
a portion of Kuipers’ book, he links his formulas and sequences
to an explanation of the seasons. “It’s fun and often beautiful to work things out and see how they all fit together. I see much beauty in mathematics. Yet, much of what I see around me is pure mystery. We live very presumptuously—we think we understand things, and in some limited, often pious sense we do, but when pressed we do not.” Upon coming to Calvin,
Kuipers never gave up his love for applied mathematics. He continued to
work as a consultant to the aerospace industry throughout his teaching
career. He did this in developing his simulation for what is real or “virtual reality.” Kuipers began experimenting
with the mathematics used to produce simulations for air force pilots
in the 1950s. The technology is now widely used in the aerospace, defense and entertainment industries. He discounts recognition
for his achievements saying, “It is a great honor, but in that context
who really deserves that honor if all of us are just what doing what we
love to do?” 


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