Uncle John, The cantankerous, absent-minded professor

August 2018

One day in winter in the mid-60s, my Uncle John Vinti put his books on the roof of his old Nash Rambler so he could unlock the door. He did that, got in, and drove off. His books fell into the parking lot.

After recovering from a severe depression with ECT (shock treatments), Uncle John largely retired from teaching, except for a graduate course at his alma mater, MIT, and moved next door to his sister (my mother) so she could take care of him in his old age. He knew almost nothing about cooking or cleaning or other household matters.

One time I installed a phone in his apartment and he called me on the old one to complain that I had stuck the phone line into the electric outlet and vice versa. “You can’t do that,” I told him. “Why not?” he asked.

“Different plugs. Have you ever plugged in a lamp?” I asked him.

“He thought about it a second and said, “Actually, no. I lived in an apartment hotel where you would just call someone.”

He was a well behaved, caring uncle in the family. We teased him and made fun of him if he came out with an inappropriate remark. (His favorite complaint was that every Italian pizza place he had ever been in was owned by a Greek.) But out in the world, I am told he was seen as a cantankerous, racist old fart.

Uncle John was the one who put me onto Brown where he had taught for a year around 1935. He even paid my application fee.

UJ was a PhD mathematician who, in his youth, worked on things like the Atomic Cannon at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. When he died in 1990 I was his executor and ended up with the responsibility of getting his book published — Orbital and Celestial Mechanics.

Thanks to a close friend of his who respected his work, I found a publisher, and an old student of my uncle’s who was willing to do some hard work in editing algorithms that my uncle’s work required. In that process, I got indirect confirmation that UJ’s system for guiding missiles (called, I think, the Vinti Spheroidal Method for Satellite Orbits and Ballistic Trajectories), had been installed on American ICBMs (They never told him).

Uncle John had often talked about whether or not the US had used his method, which he had spent a good part of his life developing. It was a secret to which he was not privy. And he died not knowing.

Many years later I was talking to my ex-brother-in-law, current friend, who happens to be in a related business (not missiles) about how much things had changed. With satellites and GPS, the game was all new. Missiles could be far more accurately guided.

I expressed regret that UJ’s lifetime of work was now irrelevant, and my friend said, “I don’t know, but if I wanted to be sure my missile went where it was supposed to go without interference to the guidance system, I’d use all three — the method John’s system replaced, his method, and GPS — and check them off against each other.”

The Russian hack of our 2016 election and our electric grid shows how important it can be to have backups of backups.

A description of Orbital and Celestial Mechanics by John Pascal Vinti.

Lecture notes from a course first given in 1966 explain the contributions to the aerospace sciences by the late professor Vinti, describing his potential theory in orbital mechanics and his interpretation of elements of celestial mechanics. Eight early chapters provide fundamentals of orbital and celestial mechanics, with material on areas such as Newton’s laws, Lagrangian dynamics, Hamilton-Jacobi theory, and the Vinti Spheroidal Method for Satellite Orbits and Ballistic Trajectories. Remaining 18 chapters cover additional topics of important elements of orbital and celestial mechanics, including Delauney variables, Gaussian variational equations for Jacobi and Keplerian elements, and the effects of drag on satellite orbits. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.



Right after I published the entry above, one of my nephews wrote to tell me about a paper he had found that advocated the use of Uncle John’s equations to pinpoint the location of space junk, which has become a real problem. The link to the paper is:


Here is an excerpt:

Over 50 years ago, Dr. John Pascal Vinti created an elegant orbital solution using analytical techniques considered advanced even by today’s standards. Due to the sophisticated nature of his techniques and a lack of self promotion, this field and the DOD has all but forgotten his effort. Wiesel demonstrates that Vinti’s solution can be put through modern analytical techniques to make it very relevant today with the potential to rival current methods. This is the starting point for the current work.


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