A professor chatting with his students

Greenberg (second from left) with students in his “Digital Twins” course. (Jason Koski/Cornell University)

After 50+ Years, Computer Graphics Pioneer Remains a Powerhouse Prof

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The many former students of Don Greenberg ’55, BCE ’58, PhD ’68, include more than a dozen Academy Award winners

This story has been condensed from a feature in the Cornell Chronicle.

By Tom Fleischman

At an age when most professionals are well into retirement, Don Greenberg ’55, BCE ’58, PhD ’68, has shown few signs of slowing down.

Sure, he feels every bit of his 88 years on occasion—“I mean, I’m getting old,” he says—but when his day begins, he’s as spry as someone half his age, or younger.

“I usually get up at around 6, make a very simple breakfast, and all of a sudden my mind is going—I can’t wait to come in and start working on something new,” says Greenberg, the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Computer Graphics in the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning.

A professor and a student working at a computer
Working with a student on a digital simulation in Rhodes Hall.

And Greenberg—whose father, sister, two uncles, wife (Iris Marcus Greenberg ’58, MS ’64), and three children went to Cornell—isn’t just teaching the same old things he’s taught since he started at his alma mater more than 50 years ago.

As he’s done his entire career, he’s pushing the boundaries of his fields.

This semester, he has launched a new undergraduate and graduate course for students in both architecture and computer science, who will learn and apply emerging digital visualization tools and software for designing the built environment.

As Greenberg has done his entire career, he’s pushing the boundaries of his fields.

“Design in the Age of Digital Twins” expands the realm of 3D digital design by enabling architects and engineers to visually demonstrate, in real time, the effects of such factors as energy use, sunlight, and extreme weather events early in the design process, when strategic decisions are made.

Greenberg has been laying the groundwork for digital twins since the 1970s.

“In a proposal to the National Science Foundation back then, I said I’d like to be able to make pictures that are physically accurate, and perceptually indistinguishable, from real-world scenes,” recalls Greenberg, founding director of the multidisciplinary Program of Computer Graphics.

His ideas didn’t go over so well at first, however.

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He recalls working with the late Cornell astronomer Carl Sagan on creating digital representations of the topography of Mars, “so that if we ever sent up a spaceship there, we wouldn’t land in a crater,” Greenberg says.

The NSF rejected his funding proposal.

“We would never do space exploration of Mars,” Greenberg recalls being told.

Everyone knows how that turned out.

Around that same time, Greenberg says, he also suggested computer animation to Walt Disney Animation Studios, which said they’d never use that technology. In 1986, Pixar was born—and its collaboration with Disney led to some of the most beloved animated films of all time.

Greenberg (far left) with students in his “Digital Twins” course.
Greenberg (far left) has taught on the Hill since before the parents of some of his current students were born.

Greenberg was thesis adviser to Rob Cook, MArch ’82, an early software developer at Pixar who shared an Oscar in 2001 for development of the RenderMan software, which produces images used in motion pictures from 3D computer descriptions of shape and appearance.

Greenberg says Cook’s technical Oscar is one of at least 18 awarded to his former students.

Cook calls Greenberg “a great guide and mentor” who had a knack for seeing the future of the technologies he taught.

“He is a broad, interdisciplinary thinker with an amazing intuition for what research will be important,” Cook says. “And because he stays grounded in the scientific fundamentals, his work has repeatedly led to breakthroughs of long-lasting importance.”

His work has repeatedly led to breakthroughs of long-lasting importance.

Rob Cook, MArch ’82

Greenberg admits he isn’t the most tech-savvy person: “If I have to use my iPhone, I’m going to go to my granddaughter.”

And he acknowledges that the classroom is a two-way street.

“In all truth, they teach me,” he says.

“I’m really proud of the fact probably almost 90% of the papers that I’ve been involved with publishing had students as the first authors. That’s Cornell; Cornell is fantastic that way. There’s a relationship that has never stopped—and with this new course, it continues.”

Top: Greenberg (second from left) with students in his “Digital Twins” course. All photos by Jason Koski/Cornell University.

Published October 26, 2022


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