Campus & Community

Physicist Costas D. Papaliolios dies at 71

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Remembered for elegance and success of experiments

Costas D.
Costas D. Papaliolios (Photo by Stu Rosner)

Physicist Costas D. Papaliolios, professor of physics emeritus at Harvard University, died June 6, 2002. He was 71.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1931 to Greek immigrant parents Helen and Demetrios Papaliolios, both from the town of Limni on the island of Evia, Papaliolios attended PS92 and Brooklyn Tech before earning his B.S. in physics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. Following stints at Bell Labs, Motorola, and the U.S. Army, he went on to earn his Ph.D. in physics from Harvard University, where he taught from 1965 until his 2001 retirement.

Papaliolios’ scientific contributions, in his joint appointment with Harvard and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, were characterized by a spirit of cleverness and elegant simplicity. An early example involved quantum mechanics, the contemporary understanding of nature on the scale of atoms and molecules, where events are believed to happen in a probabilistic manner. This view has proved philosophically troubling, even to Albert Einstein, who protested that “God does not play dice.” Papaliolios devised a stunningly simple experiment that set severe limits on theories that attempt to offer deterministic alternatives.

In a recent burst of creativity, Papaliolios helped devise an elegant method to search for planets orbiting distant stars. By using a specially-tailored square telescope aperture, instead of the usual round one, a star’s glare can be suppressed, so that nearby planets may be seen. This furthers one of NASA’s main goals for the coming decades.

“Cos will be missed by his many friends and colleagues, and particularly by his former graduate students and by very many former undergraduates to whom he taught physics in his quiet and illuminating way,” said Irwin Shapiro, Timken University Professor and director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

In rare praise, the “Confidential Guide to Courses,” a student-produced handbook noted for its no-holds-barred harshness, stated, “Professor Costas D. Papaliolios, in addition to his melodic name, is a wonderful human being. Always happy to see you, he welcomes questions from the class and his door is always open. He is one of the few professors that will stop you in the Yard to say hello, even if he doesn’t remember your name.”

Costas Papaliolios is survived by his brother Achilles and two sons, Dimitri, of Carlisle, Mass., and Andreas, of Sunnyvale, Calif. Interment services will be private. A memorial service will be held at an upcoming date. Please contact Harvard’s Department of Physics at (617) 495-2620 for information. Contributions to the Prof. Costas D. Papaliolios memorial fellowship fund are encouraged. Please contact the Harvard Office of the Recording Secretary at (617) 495-1750, or by mail at 124 Mt. Auburn St., Cambridge, MA 02138 to the attention of Susan Serrell.