Prof. Devendra Lal

(14 February, 1929 - 01 December, 2012)


Life and Science of Prof. Devendra Lal


Prof. Devendra Lal, an illustrious cosmic ray physicist, earth and planetary scientist and distinguished mentor passed away on 1st December, 2012 at his residence in San Diego, California. He was 83. Prof. Lal was a Fellow of the Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad (India) and a Professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, San Diego, California (USA). He belonged to the generation of scientists who commanded a wide range of scientific interests; his research spanned diverse areas of Earth and Planetary Sciences, from the Earth's mantle to the Moon and beyond. The novel ideas, approaches and experimental methods conceived and developed by Prof. Lal jointly with his students and colleagues to pursue studies in Earth and Planetary Sciences, and the seminal and innovative contributions that ensued from them ushered new knowledge and led to major strides in our understanding of basic processes operating in various planetary reservoirs.


Prof. Lal, joined the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai in 1949, after completing his Masters in Physics from the Banaras Hindu University (BHU), a move that laid the foundation for his prolific research career. Even as a young student of physics at BHU, he had a natural fascination for chemistry that continued throughout his scientific career. Indeed it is this fascination, as Prof. Lal has occasionally reminisced, that prompted him while he was a student to make fireworks, vanishing creams and fountain pen ink and market them locally at Banaras. It is also such adventures of Prof. Lal in chemistry combined with his extraordinary drive and never say 'impossible' attitude that led to new analytical approaches in his studies of Earth and Planetary Sciences; a classic example being the use of iron hydroxide impregnated sponges and fibers for in-situ extraction of adequate quantities of extremely low abundant radioactive isotopes and trace elements from tons of sea water for their application in nuclear oceanography.

In recent years Prof. Lal was keenly interested to adapt such methods or develop newer ones for cost effective purification of ground waters from toxic metals such as arsenic. The strong link between physics and chemistry in Prof. Lal's research made Prof. J. R. Arnold, a long term friend and colleague of Prof. Lal at the University of California, San Diego, to describe Prof. Lal on the occasion of his election as a Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences as 'For a physicist, the best chemist there is'.


Prof. Lal's early research at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research with Profs. H. J. Taylor and B.Peters on the properties of cosmic rays led to the characterization of the nature of elementary particles and their interactions much before the dawn of high energy accelerator era. It was around this time that Prof. W.Libby and his colleagues announced the discovery of radiocarbon (14C) produced in the atmosphere by the interaction of cosmic rays with atmospheric nitrogen and its potential applications in Earth Sciences. Prof. Peters and Lal recognizing the importance of this discovery coupled with the realization that cosmic ray interactions with atmospheric constituents would also produce a suite of other radionuclides, long lived 10Be in particular, that can serve as tracers to investigate Earth surface processes shifted their research focus to the estimation of production rates of cosmogenic nuclides in the atmosphere and exploit their applications in Earth Sciences. This resulted in a series of pioneering and bench mark publications that opened a completely new field of research on cosmogenic nuclides in earth surface reservoirs and their applications. The widely different chemical and nuclear properties of these nuclides make them unique and ideally suited to investigate a variety of basic processes, e.g. circulation, scavenging and precipitation in the atmosphere and oceans, and sedimentation on the ocean floor details of which were brought out in the classic publications of Lal and Peters during 50's and 60's. On the personal front, it was also during the early 1950's that Prof. Lal courted his colleague Ms. Aruna and married her in 1955. Mrs. Aruna Lal, had been the pillar of strength and support for Prof. Lal's research career and achievements.


The scope of Prof. Lal's research considerably widened during the 60's to include topics on prehistory of cosmic rays and planetary evolution based on in-depth studies of signatures of cosmic rays in meteorites. This was a natural extension of his earlier work on cosmogenic nuclides in earth surface reservoirs. Prof. Lal and colleagues retrieved for the first time the paleointensity of cosmic rays in the galaxy through measurements of cosmogenic nuclides in meteorites, a study that established the potential of such records to determine the exposure history of meteorites in space.

Their subsequent in-depth studies of signatures of cosmic ray interactions with matter stored in meteorites and lunar samples provided new knowledge on several Planetary, Solar System and Astrophysical processes; these include the composition and energy spectrum of heavy iron group particles (Z >22) in galactic cosmic rays during the past, the exposure history of lunar grains to solar flare particles, and lunar regolith dynamics at the Apollo and Luna landing sites.


The lunar research programme of Prof. Lal and colleagues at TIFR and later at PRL followed their earlier discovery of individual solar flare irradiated grains in gas rich meteorites which led them to predict and look for records of solar cosmic ray irradiation in samples from the Moon as it is devoid of an atmosphere. These studies underscored the great value of lunar samples to investigate processes which occur during exposure of materials to solar radiation in space.


In 1972 Prof. Lal made a major career move, he shifted to the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad as its Director, succeeding Prof. Vikram Sarabhai. At PRL he initiated new programmes in Earth and Planetary Sciences, and Astronomy and was responsible for the establishment of the Mt.Abu infra-red Astronomical Observatory. Prof.Lal relinquished the position of Director 1983 at the age of 54 and pursued his research interests by dividing his time between PRL and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, where he served as a full time Professor since 1987.


The discovery of several cosmic ray produced isotopes (e.g.32Si, 28Mg, 38S, 38Cl, 34mCl) in the early 60's by Prof. Lal and his colleagues at TIFR and Scripps and studies on their distribution in the stratosphere and troposphere yielded details of large scale atmospheric circulation and quantitative data on time scales for the removal of contaminants introduced into the atmosphere, e.g., fission products from nuclear weapon tests and chemical pollutants from industries. In addition to atmospheric sciences, Prof. Lal also made major advances on the applications of these isotopes as tracers to investigate the hydrology of oceans and sub-surface waters, specifically on the determination of "ages" of water masses and their movement and nutrient dynamics in the sea. These applications became an integral part of major international oceanographic programmes such as the GEOSECS designed to track deep water movements and their rates. These investigations led Prof. Lal and his group to probe in greater detail particle dynamics in the ocean and to explore the use of biogenic opal in marine sediments to retrieve past records of surface ocean biogeochemistry and climate change.


The development of Accelerator Mass Spectrometry to measure extremely low concentrations of long lived cosmogenic isotopes in environmental samples formed the basis for Prof. Lal to conceive and establish another new and major area of cosmogenic nuclide applications based on in-situ produced isotopes, particularly 10Be and 26Al to study the exposure history of rock (glacier) surfaces. This new application extended the utility of cosmogenic nuclides to studies from the atmosphere to the surface of the Earth.


Prof. Lal's contributions to this field through theoretical estimation of nuclide production rates in exposed surfaces and novel experimental approaches to measure their extremely low concentrations opened an avenue for obtaining quantitative estimates of erosion rates and exposure ages of rocks for which reliable data were not available. This approach is used extensively by earth scientists as it places geomorphologic studies, which has direct relevance to global rock cycles and regional tectonics, on a quantitative footing for the first time.


The sad demise of Mrs. Aruna Lal in 1993 devastated Prof. Lal. The professional achievements of Prof. Lal were in no small measure due to Mrs. Aruna Lal's sustained emotional and intellectual support. During her later years she was keen to support and promote children's education in and around Ahmedabad. Prof. Lal established the Aruna Lal Trust, administered through PRL, for providing scholarships for selected high school students to pursue college education in the science stream. The Trust also encourages young scientists who have made outstanding contributions in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences through the "PRL Award".


The hallmark of Prof. Lal's research has been his wholesome approach of combining both theoretical and experimental studies to exploit nuclear interactions to probe planetary physical and chemical processes and to determine their time scales. Prof. Lal's seminal work on the calculations of nuclide production rates resulting from cosmic ray interactions with various Earth reservoirs and other solar system objects and their validation through innovative experiments laid the foundation and subsequent development of the field of "Cosmogenic Nuclide Applications in Earth and Planetary Sciences". Prof. Lal strongly advocated an interdisciplinary approach to scientific investigations and the wide spectrum of his activities bear ample testimony to this as they combine inputs from the fields of cosmic rays, nuclear physics, earth and planetary sciences and astrophysics.


Prof. Lal believed and promoted development of human resource as a part of his research and also looked for societal relevance in his programs. He established the first National Radiocarbon Laboratory at TIFR, an important goal of which was to determine the chronology of ancient cultures of India to learn about the march of civilization in this part of the globe. The work carried out at this facility led to building a robust chronology of ancient civilizations in India which demonstrated that various cultures co-existed during different periods. Prof. Lal's studies in hydrology and particle dynamics and water circulation in the oceans have direct relevance to ground water recharge and movement and contaminant transport in the sea that are topics of societal importance.


Prof. Lal, has been actively involved in promoting science education, particularly in the field of Earth and Planetary Sciences. He has mentored a large number of students for their Masters and Doctoral research both in India and USA; four generations of students have benefited from his tutelage, many of whom continue to pursue a research career and contribute to the global school in Earth and Planetary Sciences.


Prof. Lal's research contributions have won him several national and international recognitions. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society (1979), Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Sciences, USA (1975), Founder Fellow of the Third World Academy of Sciences, Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Fellow of all the three science Academies in India. He is a recipient of the several awards that include Bhatnagar Prize (1967), Goldschmidt Award (1997) and Sir C.V. Raman Birth Centenary Award (1996-1997). Prof.Lal is also a recipient of the civilian award "Padmashri" bestowed by the Government of India.


Prof. Lal has occupied important positions in several International Scientific Organizations; these include President of the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics (IUGG) during 1983-1987 and the President of the International Association for Physical Sciences of the Ocean (IAPSO) during 1979‑83.


Prof. Lal has more than 200 publications in scientific journals, and about 100 publications in books, encyclopedia and conference proceedings.


In his death all of us have lost a versatile and distinguished colleague, an illustrious Earth and Planetary Scientist, a great teacher and mentor whose life and work will be an inspiration for the new generation of scientists to pursue high quality research and take forward the reverberations of his inquisitive mind and his intellectual and child like curiosity.


See Also: Scripps News


December, 2012