Until his August 2010 retirement, Ben Zinn was the longest-tenured Regents’ professor at the Institute. But Zinn didn’t let a little thing like retirement keep him from his work. Previously the David S. Lewis Jr. Chair in the School of Aerospace Engineering, Zinn continues to conduct research at the Ben T. Zinn Combustion Laboratory. Before his academic career, Zinn was a star soccer player for both the Israel and U.S. national teams.
Retirement: Two weeks afterward, I was sorry I did it because I’m still working full time.
Joining Tech: When I came on campus in 1965 there were eight faculty members in the school. I had better offers, and my colleagues at Princeton thought I’d lost my mind. But it was a good gamble. They showed me drawings for two new buildings, the Montgomery Knight building and the old combustion lab. I thought it would be nice to come in on the ground floor. I’ve seen Tech go from a good engineering school to a major force in the world.
Eponymous laboratory: I will meet new people, and they will say, “I did not know that you were alive.” This happens on a regular basis. The building opened in 2001. We’re running out of space, which is a good problem to have. They’re building a new zero-carbon building across the street, and we will occupy part of that.
Research: It’s the largest combustion research program in the United States. All of the major aircraft engineering and car companies are funding our work. This lab is a center of excellence for GE Aviation and Pratt + Whitney. We work on jet engines, gas turbines, underwater propulsion — anything that burns.
Falling into fire: I came into combustion by accident. I was at Princeton for my PhD working on heat transfer. At the end of my first year, aerospace and mechanical engineering merged, and I lost my adviser. There was a famous professor in combustion, Luigi Crocco, and he took me on.
Missed ship: You never know how life will turn out. It’s all a series of accidents. I never intended to go to the United States for school. I was traveling in Europe to play soccer, and I planned to go to school in Israel. There was a ship that was supposed to pick us up, but it was late and I missed my entrance exams. If the boat had been on time, I still would be in Israel and just retired as a soccer coach. In my case, things worked out well.
Soccer origins: When I really started playing I was 5 or 6. Soccer was my life then. I didn’t care about school. I was a soccer bum. I came to the U.S. to attend NYU. A year later, they started a soccer program. I still hold all of their records.
One regret: When I was in graduate school at Stanford I got a call to play in the World Cup for Israel in a match against Italy. I didn’t go, and I regret it to this day. If you think about a whole lifetime, missing one quarter is not a big deal. The only regret is missing the World Cup. I still dream about it.
Quitting soccer: I looked at all of the players. They were finishing their careers and had no future. I wanted to have a vocation, and I was always encouraged to study at home.
Competitive spirit: I love sports. I served on the Georgia Tech athletics board for six years. I think sports make you competitive. And to be successful in research, you have to be competitive.
Competing for funding: I’ve probably raised more than $50 million. That’s pretty good. We earned funding from the NASA Center for Propulsion and Power. We competed with all of the major universities and won. We have excellent staff, faculty and students.
Current projects: We’re making solid progress in reducing emissions. We’re moving to almost zero nitrogen oxide emissions. We’re improving the performance of jet engines. We’re doing a study on fuel flexibility. The properties of fuel will be changing. We don’t know what will happen when engines use those fuels.
Top-secret project: Oh, this room we’re leaving is restricted. If you aren’t a U.S. citizen, you can’t go in there. You are a citizen, right?
One weakness: I enjoy the technological work, and I enjoy the teaching. I know my shortcoming, which is speaking my mind. That’s why I wouldn’t have made a good administrator.
Patents: I don’t remember all of them. I’ve co-authored hundreds of papers. I’ve supervised nearly 50 PhD students. They’re successful all over the world. One of my best students, Tim Lieuwen, is now a full professor here and a rising star.
NFL tryout: I knew one of the minority owners of the Falcons. He invited me to come to training camp [in the late 1960s]. The first soccer-style kicker was playing with the Dolphins, [Garo] Yepremian. I said, “Hell, I can kick soccer style.” The first time I kicked one [field goal] from 45 yards, no problem. Then sanity set in. I had nightmares of linemen breaking through and killing me.
Heavy foot: All my life I have driven sports cars. Right now I’m driving a Porsche Cayman S. It’s a good go-kart for an old man. I like to go to the north Georgia mountains. I have a lake house there, but I’m too busy working to go as often as I’d like.
A good life lived: I grew up in poverty. Through hard work, I’ve been fortunate. As I look back, I’ve had a good life. If I had it to do again, I wouldn’t do it differently — except for the World Cup.