"Making Rational Decisions Under Uncertainty and Model Complexity"


A Celebration in Honor of Professor James L. Beck's Career and Tenure at Caltech

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James L. Beck is the George W. Housner Professor of Engineering and Applied Science at California Institute of Technology. He holds BSc (1969) and MSc (1970) in Mathematics from the University of Auckland in New Zealand, and PhD in Civil Engineering from Caltech (1978).

Beck did his doctoral research with Professor Paul C. Jennings. His PhD thesis is titled “Determining Models of Structures from Earthquake Records” [Caltech library link].  After completing his studies at Caltech, Beck returned to his native land, New Zealand, and worked at the Physics and Engineering Laboratory of the New Zealand Department of Scientific and Industrial Research in Wellington, where he had worked during his undergraduate summers and full-time after his MSc.

In 1981, Beck joined Caltech as Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering. He became Associate Professor of Civil Engineering in 1987 and Professor of Applied Mechanics and Civil Engineering in 1996. Between 1993 and 1998, he served as Executive Officer for Applied Mechanics and Civil Engineering. In 2012, Beck became the George W. Housner Professor of Engineering and Applied Science. Currently, he is a faculty member in the Department of Mechanical & Civil Engineering and the Department of Computing and Mathematical Sciences.

While he has research work in various fields as diverse as optics and quantum mechanics, Beck’s main research focus has been in earthquake engineering, structural dynamics, stochastic dynamic systems, and applications of Bayesian probability theory in structural dynamics [CV link].

Beck is well-known for his seminal work on Bayesian system identification with applications to a variety of disciplines including civil, mechanical, and earthquake engineering. He has made pioneering efforts and sustained contributions in introducing and laying the foundation of Bayesian approach to system identification of civil and mechanical engineering systems. His work has resolved long-standing issues in inverse problems. Notable examples are defying the conventional notion of ‘true models’, the treatment of non-uniqueness in best-fitted models in interpreting identification results and updating future response predictions, and the correct notion of the ‘best model class’ in the context of incomplete data and modeling errors. Beck’s work has steered research directions internationally for the past two decades and shaped the research agenda of some of the most promising research in inverse problems today.

In addition to laying the theoretical and philosophical foundations, Beck has made pioneering contributions to the development of efficient computational methods for Bayesian system identification, which are indispensible for practical application to realistic problems. He has developed efficient algorithms for obtaining the posterior (i.e., given data) statistics of model parameters addressing difficulties in different characteristic situations, including globally identifiable models (i.e., a unique peak in the posterior distribution), local identifiable models (multiple peaks) and unidentifiable models (a continuum of equally probable models). The latter have presented great conceptual and computational hurdles that have prevented the correct form of information to be extracted from limited data. Beck has been instrumental in developing a comprehensive computational framework for efficiently handling the variety of possible situations. Notably, he pioneered the use of Laplace asymptotic methods for the globally and locally identifiable models, and Markov Chain Monte Carlo method for unidentifiable models. These methods are now in wide spread use and intense research development in the mechanical and civil engineering community, providing a strong catalyst for solution of complex problems encountered in realistic situations. 
Among his other contributions to the study of stochastic dynamical systems and complex engineering systems under extreme conditions, his pioneering work on Subset Simulation has revolutionized the field of structural reliability methods, which aims at calculating probabilities of rare events with disastrous consequences encountered in engineering risk assessment. The method has provided an efficient yet robust method for investigating rare events, which is otherwise computationally prohibitive by means of direct Monte Carlo simulation or inapplicable with variance reduction techniques that require prior insights on the system. His work has spurred a large number of developments in reliability engineering and made important progress towards providing a computationally feasible solution in realistic situations featured by complicated models and with potentially a large number of variables whose values are uncertain. This again has greatly accelerated the state-of-the-art knowledge in the engineering community addressing the effects of uncertainty in performance-based designs and decision making.
Beck’s scholarly and educational achievements and guidance have been recognized in the form of numerous awards, such as the New Zealand National Research Advisory Council Fellowship which supported his doctoral work at Caltech, Senior Research Prizes by the International Association of Structural Safety and Reliability (IASSAR) and the European Association of Structural Dynamics, and the Caltech Graduate Student Council Teaching Award.  He has been the advisor to two dozen doctoral students at Caltech.

Beck has been influential in professional and research organizations. He has served as Director, Vice-President, and President of the Consortium of Universities for Research in Earthquake Engineering (CUREe). He is a Fellow of the Engineering Mechanics Institute (EMI) of the American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) and has served on its Board of Governors. He is on the Board of Directors of the International Association for Structural Control and Monitoring (IASCM). He has been Vice Chair of the Executive Committee of the former ASCE Engineering Mechanics Division, Chair of the ASCE Dynamics Committee, and Chair of the ASCE-IASCM Task Group on Structural Health Monitoring. Beck is the current Chair of the IASSAR Committee on System Identification and Structural Control.

Jim was born to Joyce and Leslie Beck in Taumarunui, a small town in the center of the North Island of New Zealand, and his early education was there. He transferred to Mount Albert Grammar School in Auckland when he was 15 where he graduated as Dux (Valedictorian) in 1966. Jim is married to Silvia, also from Taumarunui, and they have three grown children, Diane in Urbana, IL, Craig in Glendale, CA, and Michael in Los Angeles, CA. They have two young grandchildren, Hazel Beck (7) and Tasman Beck (2).



Taumarunui 1968

Jim and Silvia
Avondale 1970

Jim at Caltech
mid 1980's

Jim and Family


Jim and Family
Christmas 1988


Jim and Silvia - Ft. Lauderdale
May 1996

Jim, Silvia and Diane - Camden, UK
May 1999

Diane and Steve


Jim, Silvia and Diane - Lake Como
April 2002

Craig, Saskia and Hazel - Disneyland

Jim, Silvia, Jim's mom and Diane
March 2015

Mike, Julie and Tasman
Oct 2016