Laudatio for Joel L. Lebowitz

by David Ruelle (IHES, Paris)

It is a great pleasure to present here Joel Lebowitz as he is awarded the Henri Poincaré Prize of the IAMP and the Daniel Iagolnitzer Foundation. Joel Lebowitz has many close friends here, and each one of them has his or her own view of Joel's personality. These different views probably cannot be easily reconciled into a single portrait. I shall nevertheless try to give such a portrait. Indeed, those who are not personally acquainted with Joel deserve to know something about a man who has played a historical role in the development of modern mathematical physics. Of course all of us present in this room are part of the history of mathematical physics, some more and some less. But in the case of Jeol Lebowitz one can say that, for several decades, he has been the soul of statistical mechanics.

Let me start at the beginning. Joel L. Lebowitz was born on May 10, 1930 in Taceva, then in Czechoslovakia, now in the Ukraine. You know what convulsions and disasters Europe has gone through during the fifteen years after Joel's birth. He was caught right in the middle of this hell, and was deported with his family to Auschwitz. There, in 1944, his father, his mother, and his younger sister were killed. After being liberated from camp he tried to reach Antwerp. In a rare personal story he told about this period, he explained how he reached the Belgian border in a bus loaded with other survivors. They posed as Dutch tourists, but were exposed by a Belgian customs officer who had the idea to check if they knew the Dutch language or recognized a photograph of the queen!

We later find Joel arriving by boat in the United States. There he studies successsively in an orthodox Jewish school, at Brooklyn College, and at Syracuse University where he gets a PhD in 1956 under the supervision of P.G. Bergmann. He spends a year at Yale as post-Doc with L. Onsager. Then he gets faculty positions successively in 1957 at the Stevens Institute of Technology, in 1959 at the Belfer Graduate School of Science of Yeshiva University, and in 1977 at Rutgers where he is now.

I met Joel Lebowitz first during his Yeshiva period. His office there was somewhat different from a typical scientist's office. Hanging from the ceiling were kites, or rather kite-like sculptures by his friend Fumio Yoshimura: delicate constructions of paper glued on a thin wooden skeleton. Through Joel I met Kate Millett, feminist writer, sculptor, and friend of Fumio. Those were great days. Since then, the atmosphere of science has changed, the Belfer Graduate School has collapsed, but Joel Lebowitz himself has succeeded in maintaining his own attitude towards life and the world. If you go to his office at Rugers your eye will be caught by the vibrant, fresh, and luminous colors of the paintings of Estelle, his first wife, who died in 1996.

Apart from interest in art, there are many facets to Joel's personality. Still, we must say that he is first and foremost a scientist. I find that when we meet we may talk about all kinds of things, but very soon we discuss specific questions of statistical mechanics. He would like to understand this, or that, and over the years the topics of discussion have ranged from low density expansions, gas-liquid phase transition, and a variety of other topics among which recently nonequilibrium has played a prominent role. The research work of Joel Lebowitz covers all areas of statistical mechanics. He is the author or coauthor of more than 450 technical papers and this opus cannot be summarized here. Let me just quote some catch phrases like Percus-Yevick equation, Lebowitz inequalities, thermodynamic limit for Coulomb systems (with Elliott Lieb), or heat conduction in harmonic chains (with Herbert Spohn). Because of his extensive and detailed knowledge of statistical physics, Joel has had a strong influence on the field, encouraging valuable developments, or pointing to deficiencies. This he has done both in personal discussions and through a leadership that has expressed itself mainly in the Yeshiva-Rutgers meetings and in the Journal of Statistical Physics. I now want to discuss briefly the meetings and the journal.

In the late fifties, Joel started a series of biannual meetings of statistical mechanics, which were first known as the Yeshiva meetings, and now continue as the Rutgers meetings. Year after year these meetings have been a forum for new and important results. They have played a tremendous role even though they have basically a zero budget. In fact the economic basis of the meetings is what is known in economic parlance as ``good will''. This good will is Joel's ability to make a proper selection of topics, of speakers, and to impose a smooth and courteous but very firm discipline: if you are allowed to speak for ten minutes, you speak for ten minutes, not more. Another achievement of Joel's organizational gift is the Journal of Statistical Physics. Started in 1975, this has become a major and high quality journal of mathematical physics, thanks to a lot of work and able editorial decision making.

Joel Lebowitz has been President of the New York Academy of Sciences, and has held with apparent facility a number of other positions of responsibility. I shall not list them, but must say now a few words about an activity related only in part to science: his fight for human rights. Joel had good reasons to be appalled by the blooming of antisemitism in Soviet Union, the fate of refuseniks or the discrimination against Jewish scientists and students. He went to visit refuseniks until he was denied a visa by the Soviet authorities. But his fight for human rights has taken also other forms, and is by no means restricted on an ethnic basics. It continues actively now even though the Soviet system has collapsed.

At the end of this presentation I want to address a question which may linger in at the back of the mind of some of you: how easy is it to live in the vicinity of such a strong personality as that of Joel? What happens if you don't agree with him? If you do not follow his suggestions? Actually, nothing terrible happens. His wife Ann, who is a sweet but not a meek person coexists with him pleasantly and so do all kinds of people, including myself, who have somewhat different interests and views of the world. I think we all recognize that Joel Lebowitz, as a scientist and as a man, has done a lot to make the world a better place to live. And for that we deeply thank him.