Public Release: 

Rutgers math, physics professor honored by APS for human rights activism

Rutgers University

NEW BRUNSWICK/PISCATAWAY, N.J. - Rutgers professor Joel L. Lebowitz, an internationally recognized leader in defending the human rights of oppressed scientists, next week receives the American Physical Society's Nicholson Medal for Humanitarian Service.

The society, which presents the award Monday, March 21 at its annual March meeting in Los Angeles, cites Lebowitz's "tireless personal activism" over the past three decades to help scientists worldwide secure basic personal freedoms and ensure their ability to openly practice their professions. He is the 11th winner of the medal, established in 1994 and bestowed upon physicists who have improved society's quality of life; demonstrated outstanding teaching, mentoring or scholarship; or led the quest for international human rights or peace.

Lebowitz joined Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, in 1977, where he is the George William Hill Professor of Mathematics and Physics. He is renowned worldwide for his expertise in statistical mechanics and holds many awards and honors for his scholarly and human rights work. These include the Henri Poincaré prize for mathematical physics, the Boltzmann Medal, the Max Planck Research Award, an honorary doctor of science degree from Clark University in Massachusetts and the Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In the 1970s, Lebowitz became active in supporting dissident scientists in the former Soviet Union, especially Jewish scientists known as "refusniks" who were barred from emigrating to Israel. He helped ease the isolation these scientists felt by visiting them and organizing seminars through which they could share their work with the rest of the scientific world. Through his leadership in bodies such as the Committee of Concerned Scientists and the New York Academy of Sciences, Lebowitz maintained international pressure on the Soviet Union to respect human rights agreements.

"The Soviet regime walked a fine line between keeping scientists under control and providing enough outside visibility and contact to maintain scientific progress," said Lebowitz, a native of Czechoslovakia who experienced oppression firsthand as a childhood survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp. "We seized that bit of visibility to galvanize the world's scientific community and make sure the country's leaders knew they were being watched."

After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Lebowitz continued to press for the freedom and humane treatment of scientists in countries such as China, Cuba and Syria. And in the United States, he and his colleagues have interceded in immigration issues when foreign scientists feared they would be imprisoned or tortured if deported to their native countries.

"Joel was more involved and more effective than perhaps anyone in the field," said Felix Browder, who was Rutgers' first vice president of research and a recipient of the National Medal of Science. "It was his combination of scientific stature and personal conviction that accounted for his impact. He was determined, yet reasonable, willing to talk and never afraid to raise uncomfortable issues."

Mathematics department chair Richard Falk said Lebowitz embodies the university's mission of teaching, research and service and deserves much credit for Rutgers having one of the nation's top 20 mathematics departments. "We have many top-notch researchers here, but Joel is exceptional in contributing to the careers of other people, especially as a mentor to graduate and postdoctoral students in math and physics. As a leader in statistical mechanics, he brings visiting professors to Rutgers from prestigious universities in Europe and sponsors conferences attended by scientists from around the world."

Lebowitz earned his bachelor of science degree in 1952 at Brooklyn College and his Ph.D. 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 his faculty appointments, Lebowitz also serves as director of Rutgers' Center for Mathematical Sciences Research.


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