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Prof. Itamar Procaccia: Insights beyond the verbal
"My earliest childhood memories revolve around the efforts invested by all around me to get a chicken, so the boy could have some soup," reminisces Professor Itamar Procaccia, Dean of the Weizmann Institute's Faculty of Chemistry. Born in Tel Aviv in 1949, little Itamar's future was never doubted by his parents. "They didn't bother with the details. It didn't matter if I became an architect, a doctor, an engineer, or a lawyer. But of one thing they were certain: My place was in academia, and in academia alone. No other option was even worth considering."
This suited the boy's natural inclinations. "I had a subscription at the library. I remember taking out a book, reading it while I walked home, and then, many times, turning right back to the library to take out another. I was interested -- still am -- in language and other modes of expression. The plastic arts, for example, are an excellent medium to express ideas that cannot be verbalized. Mathematics attracts me in much the same manner: It too offers a set of rules enabling expression of phenomena and experiences that cannot be expressed in words."
Procaccia's ambition to reach insights beyond the verbal led him to the experimental comparison of different forms of expression: art, poetry, Zen, and a variety of religious perceptions. Experimental science, though, was a form of expression with which he professes to have had some trouble. "It became evident in a very short time that I was not destined for an occupation where one had to work with one's hands and yet avoid smashing things," he says.
Thus his doctoral thesis focused on energy transfer processes between colliding molecules. This field was based mostly on mathematical methods and was eminently suited to Procaccia, with his natural disposition for matters that are, in one way or another "beyond the mundane." After the Yom Kippur War, Procaccia stormed his doctoral thesis, completing it in the record time of 15 months. In fact, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in order to accommodate him, had to amend its regulations setting the minimum time for completion of a doctoral thesis at two years. During his postdoctoral fellowship at MIT, this predisposition led him to a new field of research, one that intrigues him to this day: chaotic and turbulent flow processes -- a field that produces countless visual "masterpieces," neatly dovetailing with his interest in the plastic arts.
Upon his return to Israel, Procaccia joined the Weizmann Institute. In 1980 he was appointed an associate professor, and in 1985 a full professor. Four years later, in 1989, he was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Chemistry, in which capacity he serves to this day. In his research, he is aiming to fully understand the statistical nature of the turbulent flow phenomenon, a problem that has been referred to as one of the last great open problems of statistical physics. Chaotic turbulent flow is a universal phenomenon, occurring in the atmosphere, in outer space, and in gases and liquids flowing in enclosed spaces. This highly complex phenomenon is not yet fully understood, despite the great efforts invested in studying it. Procaccia, his colleagues, and students have lighted on an original mathematical approach that considerably improves our ability to characterize the development of turbulent flows, giving scientists the necessary tools to build a final, exhaustive theory of turbulent chaotic flow. If and when such a theory is finally formulated, it will enable us, for example, to control the turbulent flow of air surrounding aircraft and automobile hulls, considerably decreasing fuel consumption.