Devendra Lal (1929-2012)
Professor Devendra Lal, an illustrious cosmic ray physicist, Earth and planetary scientist, and distinguished mentor passed away on December 1, 2012 at his residence in San Diego, California. He was 83.
Throughout his long career, Professor Lal was known for the diversity and creativity of his research interests. His early work on the composition and energy spectrum of primary cosmic radiation and in elementary particle physics became the basis for his research on the mechanisms and rates of natural physical and chemical processes on Earth and in the solar system using radionuclides. He published extensively on cosmic ray produced radioisotopes in terrestrial environments, in the atmosphere, in polar ice, in the oceans and oceanic sediments, and in lakes. And he worked on nuclear tracks and radioactivity in lunar samples and meteorites. This work brought him numerous international honors, among them as a Fellow of the Royal Society, Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences, Fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences, and recipient of the V. M. Goldschmidt Medal of the Geochemical Society.
To his many friends and colleagues around the world Professor Lal was best known for his insatiable curiosity, his good humor, and as a caring and demanding teacher. He was fond of asking: "What new idea did you have today?" No idea was too big or too outlandish to be considered. He loved to experiment, and if something didn't work he would try it another way. Some of his experiments were gigantic, such as dating ocean waters by submerging meter-sized frames packed with iron-impregnated sponges or fibers into the deep sea for many hours to extract minute quantities of the natural radioisotope silicon32. He often frustrated his colleagues and students with his all-consuming pursuit of science. He was both uncompromising and patient with students, often lamenting their poor preparation, especially in mathematics, but also spending hours with them until they understood the material.
Devendra Lal was born February 14, 1929 to a large family of modest means in Varanasi, India, where he completed his bachelor's and master's education at Banaras Hindu University. His pioneering PhD thesis research on cosmic ray physics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Bombay (Mumbai) and Bombay University, completed in 1960, had its roots in the origins of modern physics in Germany and the United States through his thesis advisor Professor Bernard Peters, who was a refugee from both Nazism in Germany and McCarthyism in the US.
He first came to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography as a visiting researcher in 1957, and 10 years later as a professor of nuclear geophysics. Over his long career Professor Lal divided his time between Scripps/UC San Diego and appointments in India, first as a professor at the Tata Institute and then as professor and director of the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad, before making Scripps his full-time academic home in 1989. Professor Lal and his late wife Aruna have been generous supporters of Scripps and PRL, notably through their endowment of the Devendra and Aruna Lal Fellowship in support of creative and exceptional Scripps graduate students and a similar Trust that provides scholarships for selected high school students from Ahmedabad to pursue college educations in science. His wisdom and his good humor will be sorely missed, but his academic legacy and personal impact will remain with us for many years to come.