A Harvard wanderer asks simple questions

A Harvard wanderer asks simple questions

The question, “What, exactly, do you do?", elicits a smile from L. Mahadevan.

It is, on the surface, a simple question, but for Mahadevan the answer could lead to many places. Or, maybe, that’s the answer, that Mahadevan, a 43-year-old professor at Harvard, studies—seemingly simple, everyday questions such as, how does fabric drape? paper wrinkle? paint dry?—and hopes that they may lead to new places in science.

“I’m a wanderer," Mahadevan said. “I tend to be maybe, too curious about too many things. And most of the time I fail in satisfying that curiosity. But," he said, as he raised the eyebrows on his boyish face, “one curiosity leads to another".

Harvard lists Mahadevan as a professor of applied mathematics. But he’s also a physicist. And an engineer. And he holds appointments in Harvard’s biology department. He is, he finally concludes, “just a scientist" whose interest is a world where “everything is a puzzle of why and how and what".

Take one of his latest riddles: the physics of walking a slackline. Mahadevan happened to read an article about the sport—a slackline is a cousin of the circus tightrope, but the line is flat and slack and the tension on the line is provided by the weight of the walker—and then watched a YouTube video and then...last week, the chalkboard in his office was filled with equations.

Joseph Keller, a professor of mathematics and engineering at Stanford who was Mahadevan’s adviser and role model—he says, in the attempt to try and explain everything—remembers that Mahadevan spent so much time jumping between interests that he had to force him to focus if he was ever going to get his doctorate.

“In some sense, he’s like many Renaissance scientists," Keller said. “In those days, there wasn't the extreme specialization we have now. They did whatever they had to do to understand the problems that interested them. And that’s what he’s doing now. He’s really a star in a number of different areas."

Mahadevan grew up all over the place in India, and since joining academia he’s bounced around the egghead capitals of the world, from Stanford to MIT to Cambridge University in England to Harvard.

This is how he likes it, constantly moving, finding some small glimpse of knowledge that is portable, that he can take with him to his next riddle. “One could work on a problem for a long time, or one could wander. I’m not an expert on anything," he said. This “diffused" label, he thinks, is an advantage; it protects him from expectations.