Campus & Community

Mahadevan, Huybers named MacArthur Fellows

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Everyday science, glaciation experts draw ‘genius’ grants

Two Harvard faculty members who study present and past ice sheets and the science behind familiar objects and everyday events have been named recipients of prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius” grants.

This year’s awards, announced Tuesday (Sept. 22) by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, go to Assistant Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences Peter Huybers and Lola England de Valpine Professor of Applied Mathematics Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan in Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and a faculty member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.

The two were among fellowship recipients nationwide who were selected from a variety of fields for work exhibiting outstanding creativity and promise. Each fellow receives a no-strings-attached grant of $500,000 to encourage their work. Fellows are nominated anonymously by leaders in various fields and are unaware they are being considered until they receive a phone call out of the blue informing them they won.

The award is an investment in the fellows’ future, not a reward for past accomplishment, according to the foundation. The grant is intended to free MacArthur Fellows to pursue “their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society.”

How does that work?

Just over a week ago, the foundation had to be persistent to reach Mahadevan, who said he received several messages that, because he was teaching, he didn’t return. When a foundation representative finally reached him, he asked whether Mahadevan was sitting down and whether he was holding a baby. He sat, assured the caller he did not have a baby in his arms, and then heard the news.

“It’s unbelievable,” Mahadevan said. “It’s very nice to be recognized. It’s incredible that the foundation is showing tremendous trust in me.”

Mahadevan said he hasn’t made plans for the award yet, though he has thoughts of doing something to improve education around the world. Mahadevan said he has always been motivated by curiosity about the things around him and how they work. While he feels lucky to have had the opportunities he has, others, perhaps with greater potential, are not as lucky, he said.

A scan of scientific journal articles by Mahadevan reveals an array of familiar words: rugs and springs and pine cones, blood and kelp and leaves, Venus’ flytraps, fluttering flags, dripping faucets, cards, ropes, and falling paper.

Over the years, Mahadevan has plumbed all sorts of familiar objects and events for the physics that drives them. He is sometimes asked whether what he does is useful and he responds that his work satisfies a need to know and appreciate the world around him, much like a reader appreciates a novel or a listener appreciates music.

“To be human is to be curious. … Why not encourage that?” Mahadevan said. “When you tell me you like Keats, that you like Beethoven, I take it at face value. It’s the same [thing] when you learn something you didn’t know.”

Mahadevan, who specializes in applied mathematics, macroscopic physics, and biological dynamics, came to Harvard in 2003 from the University of Cambridge. He received his bachelor’s degree at the Indian Institute of Technology, master’s degrees from the University of Texas and Stanford University, and a doctorate from Stanford, in 1995. He was assistant and then associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and was Schlumberger Professor of Complex Physical Systems at the University of Cambridge.

Looking at climate change

Taking a multifaceted look at climate change, Huybers studies the history of Earth’s glaciers and ice sheets, as well as the temperature fluctuations seen across the planet’s surface over the course of a typical year. He has also participated in efforts to reconstruct Earth’s past climate based on the relatively little evidence available to us.

The MacArthur grant came as a complete surprise to Huybers, who reports experiencing a combination of “happiness for the honor of receiving this award, gratitude to the MacArthur Foundation and colleagues whose recommendations made this possible, and the more sobering sentiment of wanting to make good on this opportunity.”

Huybers’ research seeks to clarify the as-yet poorly understood processes that have driven the waxing and waning of Earth’s stores of ice over the past 3 million years. During the planet’s ice ages, ice has covered much of the northern continents; today’s relatively ice-free conditions represent something closer to a historic minimum.

The cause of this periodic melting and reforming of glaciers and ice sheets remains unclear, with scientists generally unable to agree on a single compelling theory for these wide shifts in glaciation. Huybers is working on multiple fronts to gather data and develop tests that might help solve this mystery.

Huybers also studies the tremendous annual temperature variations seen across much of the Earth’s surface. Earlier this year, his analysis of global temperatures between 1850 and 2007 shed new light on this question, showing that winter temperatures have risen more rapidly than summer temperatures. Among other effects, this imbalance has led spring to arrive, on average, nearly two days earlier than just 50 years ago, with implications for everything from the budding of trees to bird migration to the annual dissolution of sea ice.

“I imagine [the MacArthur award] will help in my work, research, and teaching — all of which are closely connected — in two ways. First, I would like to use some portion of it to directly support novel climate research, something that would not usually be funded.

“The second use is more personal,” he says. “My wife, Downing Lu, is a military physician who has been assigned to take over the pediatric intensive care unit at Walter Reed [Army Medical Center] in Washington, D.C., and some portion of this award will go toward making it possible for me, Downing, and our 2-year-old son to spend more time together.”

Huybers became an assistant professor in Harvard’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences in 2007, following postdoctoral work at both Harvard and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. He received his B.S. in physics from the U.S. Military Academy in 1996 and his Ph.D. in climate physics and chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2004.