Dean Sreenivasan Talks Tandon History, His Work as a Physicist, and What Scientific Phenomena Can Teach Us about Life

Dean Sreenivasan giving a talk

On October 10, members of Tandon’s staff and faculty were invited to a “Chat and Chew” session, hosted by the school’s Office of Human Resources. While previous events generally focused on HR matters, this time Dean Katepalli Sreenivasan headlined a more wide-ranging installment, with topics ranging from famous graduates to fluid mechanics.

As attendees enjoyed lunch, he touched upon the history of the school, sharing lists of Nobel laureates who have walked our halls, inventors who’ve gotten their starts here, and civic leaders who went on to influence not just Brooklyn but the wider world. It was an impressive compendium that included some famed luminaries like Herman Mark, Paul Soros, and Eugene Kleiner as well as some lesser-known figures like Isidor Fankuchen, a noted authority on X‐ray diffraction, and Norman Lamm, a chemist who later made the leap to a rabbinical career and presidency of Yeshiva University.

“Among my favorite alumni stories is that of James Truslow Adams, who graduated here in 1898 and went on to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. He coined the phrase “the American Dream,” making us fittingly — and quite literally — the birthplace of the American Dream.”

Those laypeople who wondered if they would understand the next portion of Sreeni’s presentation — an overview of his work as a scientist — had little cause for worry. A masterful teacher, he described in clear terms how physicists like himself study three different aspects of the universe: the small (atoms, electrons, and quarks, for example), the large (galaxies, the Big Bang), and the complex (the interactions that go on among all those components that allow for life as we know it to exist).

“We don’t yet have a very profound knowledge of the complex,” he explained. “But we are working towards that. Are there general rules that apply across all areas? Can understanding the fundamental science involved in one help us understand another? Can we build a bridge across disciplines and between large and small?”

One paradigm of the concept of complexity could be found in his own studies of fluid motion and turbulence, he asserted. Employing a well-traveled line from the rhyme “Siphonaptera” (“Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ‘em”), he delved into a discussion of how smooth flows become turbulent: how large events like hurricanes generate small, unpredictable perturbations, which in turn generate even smaller and less predictable events.

Talking about the phenomenon known as intermittency, he said that very big events that occur rarely can have a disproportionately large influence. “It’s like life; events like death, divorce, or winning the lottery don’t happen very often, but when they do, they change the way the world around us looks,” he mused.