When Joel Lebowitz presides over the next Statistical Mechanics Conference beginning December 13 on Rutgers’ Busch Campus, it will mark the 100th time he has led this tightly knit gathering of scientists, whose specialized work reaches into fields as diverse as chemistry, physics, biology, and economics.
Lebowitz, the George William Hill Professor of Mathematics and Physics on the New Brunswick Campus, began the series of twice-yearly meetings while at Stevens Institute of Technology in 1959, decades before his 1977 arrival at Rutgers. The upcoming milestone caught the attention of the magazine Physics Today, which in October published personal recollections of participants, who attend the sessions as much for the collegiality as for the depth and focus of the scientific content.
David Chandler, a theoretical chemist from the University of California at Berkeley, recounted how, as a young graduate student and first-time attendee in 1967, he sat next to the following year’s chemistry Nobel Prize winner, Lars Onsager. Pierre Hohenberg, New York University’s senior vice provost for research, described how Lebowitz provides common ground for rivals to iron out differences. Jennifer Chayes, a Microsoft research executive, talked about how Lebowitz views everyone from graduate students to famous professors as equals.
Participants also said that they admire Lebowitz’s ability to foresee trends in this field, which examines how the microscopic structure and behavior of matter underlies broad physical principles. “Joel has the judgment to bring it to the forefront of the stage, and as a result, he has nurtured an awful lot of science,” said Chandler, the Berkeley chemist.
Lebowitz told Physics Today that the purpose of the meetings is to foster openness and collegiality. “I want to keep a fraternal, informal spirit in the community,” he said, and “to bring in younger people, minority people, [and] to give younger people a chance to present their work when senior people are listening.”
The article’s writer, Toni Feder, wrote that Lebowitz encourages short, conversational presentations without visual aids. “I learned that if they had a slide, they'd put up 27 equations,” Lebowitz told Feder.
Lebowitz also includes a session at each meeting designed to advance the cause of science and human rights. This is a longstanding concern for the Rutgers scholar, who received the American Physical Society’s Nicholson Medal for Human Outreach in 2004 for his three decades of support for scientists oppressed by totalitarian regimes. Lebowitz visited oppressed scientists in the former Soviet Union and other countries, challenging leaders to honor human rights commitments they expressed but didn’t consistently exercise.
Lebowitz's friends are preparing to honor him with a banquet on Sunday, December 14, in the Busch Campus Center. “We want to celebrate both the jubilee of these remarkable meetings and the exceptional person who established them,” Feder wrote in Physics Today, quoting Michael Aizenman, professor of physics and mathematics at Princeton and a former student of Lebowitz.
While the 100th meeting, which will take place at the Hill Center for the Mathematical Sciences on the Busch Campus, December 13 through 18, is a milestone, it is in no way an endpoint. Lebowitz expects lead the 101st meeting in May and many to follow.
Lebowitz earned his bachelor of science degree in 1952 at Brooklyn College and his doctoral degree in 1956 from Syracuse University. Before joining Rutgers, he held faculty positions at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken and Yeshiva University in New York City. In addition to the Nicholson Medal, Lebowitz won the Henri Poincaré Prize for mathematical physics, the Boltzmann Medal, the Max Planck Medal, the Max Planck Research Award, and the Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He holds an honorary doctor of science degree from Clark University in Massachusetts and an honorary doctorate from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.