Dean Emeritus Katepalli Sreenivasan is an honored speaker at the American Physical Society


On March 14, 2022, Dean Emeritus Katepalli Sreenivasan accepted this year’s Leo P. Kadanoff Prize from the American Physical Society (APS), at a multiday event in Chicago. 

Given in recognition of Sreenivasan’s “pioneering experimental, theoretical, and numerical research on the nonlinear and multifractal foundations of turbulent flows,” the Prize honors the memory and celebrates the remarkable legacy of Kadanoff, who once served as APS president and had an enormous impact on statistical and nonlinear physics. (Read the announcement of this prize and get an overview of Sreenivasan’s career and other honors.)

During the scientific talk Sreenivasan presented at the March gathering, he made clear that Kadanoff had also made an impact on him as a fellow scientist and as a person. “I am pleased to be linked forever with Leo Kadanoff through this prize,” Sreenivasan began. “He was one of my heroes both for his science and for his leadership in the community.” 

Sreenivasan went on to detail the areas in which the pair’s research overlapped–the phenomenon of intermittency, for example, a property of all nonlinear systems, easily characterized by multifractals, and the so-called Rayleigh-Benard convection, a paradigm for thermal convection in engineering applications, geophysics, and astrophysics. On a more personal level, he described instances of Kadanoff’s open and collaborative spirit. In 2006, for example, when Sreenivasan was director of the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, he set about organizing a high-level scientific meeting in memory of Austrian physicist and philosopher Ludwig Boltzmann, who had made important contributions in the field of statistical mechanics and who had committed suicide 100 years before at a Trieste building then known as the Hotel Ples. Given Kadanoff’s own stature in the field and his position as APS president-elect, it struck Sreenivasan that he would be the ideal person to keynote the meeting. He graciously accepted the invitation and gave an especially warm speech, thus helping Sreenivasan mount a fitting tribute to the late Boltzmann. Kadanoff later also agreed to speak at a meeting organized in 2008 to mark Sreenivasan’s 60th birthday, which attracted a Who’s-Who roster of the day’s top physicists.

Sreenivasan, as the 2022 Chair of the APS Committee on the International Freedom of Scientists (CIFS), gave a second talk, as well, at the March Meeting, this one tracing the history of the Committee and outlining his own views on scientific freedom and human rights.

As he explained, the APS had, for the first several decades of its existence, focused on its core tasks of producing outstanding physics journals and arranging first-rate meetings. So assiduously did the group stay in its silo that in 1948, when it voiced public support for its former president Edward Condon, who had become the subject of McCarthy-era persecution, the New York Times commented: “The American Physical Society, in a move unprecedented for an organization devoted exclusively to the affairs of pure science, entered the field of politics yesterday with a letter vigorously assailing the actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee in reference to Dr. Edward U. Condon. . . . The distinction between this message and those from other organizations lies in the fact that the American Physical Society prides itself on its aloofness from all matters except the intricacies of pure physics.” Ultimately, as Sreenivasan related, the APS started taking a more active role in public affairs, spurred on, in part, by pressure from its members–as well as the realization that groups like the Committee of Concerned Scientists and the U.S. National Academies Human Rights Committee were springing up. 

In 1980, the CIFS became a free-standing committee within the APS and since then has monitored the human rights of scientists around the world and their ability to carry out and communicate their research free of interference.   

Sreenivasan, who joined the APS that same year and was assigned to represent the Division of Fluid Dynamics on the Committee recalled his own early involvement: “The CIFS would provide names and addresses [of scientists whose rights were being denied], and I would spend the first Saturday of most months doing my self-assigned job: writing letters and then taking them directly to the post office to mail them. Needless to say, the correspondence was always one-sided. Most of the time, my work was being done in a vacuum, without any awareness of its impact. A few years later, I met one of my correspondents, Dr. Michael Kholmyansky, an expert in atmospheric measurements, now retired from Tel-Aviv university: he told me that my correspondence was extremely valuable during his internment in the USSR, before he was allowed to migrate to Israel. Another time, at an AIP reception in College Park, a young man sought me out and told me that his father, Ryszard Herczynski, a Polish scientist who had worked on the kinetic theory of gases, was grateful for all the letters he received from me under similar circumstances.”

Those personal anecdotes underscore the importance of the work undertaken by the CFIS. As Sreenivasan asserted: “We cannot turn a blind eye to what appear to be isolated events, else we become implicit participants in these malicious undertakings: When an entire ethnic community is put under suspicion because a small number of them violate accepted norms, when a researcher is fired for pointing out inconvenient truths on escalating deforestation, when statistics on debt and deficit of a nation are reasons enough for legal proceedings to be taken by a government, when scientists are convicted criminally for what they said or did not say just before certain earthquakes struck, or when scientists are imprisoned for publishing a paper linking pollution to cancer–these are attacks on science beyond those specific contexts.” 

He concluded, “We collectively said ‘never again’ after the Holocaust but let similar tragedies happen in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Darfur. There is no reason to believe that it won’t happen again. That is why it is vital for us all to be vigilant. That is why the actions of organizations like the CIFS are important.”