L. Mahadevan is the Lola England de Valpine Professor of Applied Mathematics, Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, and Physics at Harvard University. He grew up in India, where he studied as an undergraduate. Following graduate school (at Stanford) and postdoctoral work in Urbana and Chicago, he joined the faculty at MIT. Wanderlust and opportunity led to a move across the Atlantic when he was a fellow of Trinity College and the Schlumberger Chair in Complex Physical Systems at Cambridge University. In 2003, inspired by the hope of new intellectual adventures at the interface of the physical and biological sciences, he moved back to Cambridge, MA, but slightly further up the river.
Mahadevan seeks to understand the patterns of shape and flow in matter. A particular joy is to uncover explanations of natural phenomena that are easy to observe, often not so well understood, and of relevance far beyond what might be first envisaged, “looking for the sublime in the mundane.” For example, he has studied how a stream of honey coils onto toast (and the shape of island arcs on earth), the Cheerios effect (and its implications for self-assembly), how leaves ripple, shoots grow, tendrils coil and Venus fly traps snap (providing inspiration for biomimetic engineering), how the body grows, guts loop and brains fold (and a mathematical theory of morphogenesis), how worms crawl, snakes undulate and fish swim (and the development of coordinated locomotion) and how social insects solve problems collectively (and the development of complex behaviors from simple rules) etc. He has also designed methods for engineering shape using origami, algorithms for detecting structure in networks, and invented a few toys, including a coin that lands on its edge one-third of the time. For a study on how sheets wrinkle, he shared the Ig Nobel Prize in Physics in 2007 for “research that first makes people laugh, and then makes them think” and celebrated it with a ditty. At Harvard, Mahadevan has taught over 20 different courses in mathematics, physics, biology and engineering, and advised more than 50 students and postdoctoral fellows. He is a MacArthur Fellow, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of London. When he is not thinking about new problems, Mahadevan enjoys swimming and hiking.