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Home >Tamils - a Nation without a State> One Hundred Tamils of the 20th Century > Murugesu Sivapalan

One Hundred Tamils of the 20th Century

Murugesu Sivapalan

[see also Professor Murugesu Sivapalan
at the University of Western Australia]

From Murugesu Sivapalan's Response at the presentation of the John Dalton Medal in 2003 - for his pioneering contributions to advancing the science of catchment hydrology

Response by Murugesu Sivapalan

Murugesu Sivapalan Receiving a prestigious medal such as this should be an important milestone in anybody's life, and in my case, I draw immense pleasure from the fact I am the first Australian, first Asian, first Sri Lankan and the first Tamil to win this medal. I am extremely grateful to the European Geophysical Society for recognizing me in this way and giving hope and inspiration to a whole generation of young scientists in these countries, and elsewhere.

You have honored me for my supposed contributions to hydrology - to be honest I am not sure I have done all that much to hydrology or if hydrology will be any poorer had I not been there. However, what I can say is that hydrology has indeed served me well, that my decision to specialize in hydrology many years ago has been vindicated. I chose to specialize in hydrology, back in 1975, during the process of applying for a postgraduate scholarship to study at the Asian Institute of Technology. The decision I made was an intensely personal, lonely and risky decision, since there was nobody to guide me, and no information was available to support it. A pragmatic reason for choosing hydrology was that it substantially increased my chances of winning a scholarship, as none of my classmates was interested in hydrology, and I was therefore the lone candidate.

A deeper reason for why I chose hydrology, however, was that I thought hydrology fitted my personality better - my mistaken conception of hydrology then, with my limited knowledge, was that it was an "abstract" field. I liked the idea of speculating deeply about nature, of not being able to rely on and be hampered by traditional laws of physics, of not being concerned "with all the gory details" - even though I was an engineer I was not so motivated by the traditional engineering ways of studying things. This also explains why I am still not much of a field experimentalist and not much interested in so-called physically based models - I cannot be so motivated by, or see through, the details - they do not fit my personality. I was, and still am, more interested in developing general concepts than in gathering or using detailed forms of knowledge. The more I have come to enjoy my work and to receive the rewards that have come my way, such as the John Dalton Medal, the more I have come to realize what an inspired decision it must have been over 28 years ago when I chose hydrology on a whim. Clearly in hydrology I have found my true calling.

In accepting this medal I would like to give credit to a whole community of people, who live all around the world, and have played a big part in my development.

One needs to admit that, by any measure, I have come a long way from humble beginnings back home in Sri Lanka. Along the way I have been blessed to be associated with people and faced circumstances that have propelled me to achieve these heady heights:

1) parents who lit the "fire in the belly" that is still burning bright,

2) teachers, students and colleagues who have freely shared with me their knowledge and wisdom, and the excitement for hydrology, and,

3) a wife and a family that took care of "home affairs" so that I could devote every living moment to pursuing my interest in hydrology. I want to make a special mention of my many current and former students and post-docs who did the bulk of the work for which I am being honored tonight.

Many of you know that I hail from Sri Lanka. But only a few of you may know that an ancient name for Sri Lanka was Serendib. Apparently, in ancient times some mythical princes of Serendib had the knack for "making discoveries as if by accident" and the English word "serendipity" has since come to describe this aspect of human endeavour. I often tend to think that serendipity applies to many things that have happened in my life. Of the many, indeed numerous, people that I want to thank tonight, I want to mention a small number by name, and all of them came into my life "as if by accident" - in reality, though, a lot of hard work lay behind these so-called "accidents":

1) my high school mathematics teacher, the late Mr Ratnsabapathy, for literally discovering me and lifting me up,

2) my wife Banumathy, for taking care of me and the family, and for being a bedrock of support, with not much of a return,

3) Eric Wood of Princeton University for pushing me to the limits of ability and endurance that I did not then know I possessed,

4) Jörg Imberger and the Centre for Water Research for giving me a precious opportunity, raising my expectations, and supporting me to the hilt,

5) Günter Blöschl of the Technical University of Vienna for being my greatest fan and greatest critic, and for introducing me to Europe, and

6) Vijay Gupta for introducing me to PUB in 1997 at a most critical time in my career. If at all I can take credit for anything, it is for the hard work and endurance that generated the good luck and fortune that helped bring these people into my life.

My success tonight owes a lot to the generosity of the human spirit exhibited by these people, and indeed by all of the people, in all continents, who have interacted me in one way or the other, for which I am eternally grateful. Indeed, my success is a success for humanity and for the human spirit, which is much more important to me than any minor contributions I may have made to advancing catchment hydrology. I thank you all for gracing this occasion tonight and supporting me. Good evening.

From the citation for the award of the John Dalton Medal by the European Geophysical Society for Distinguished Research in Hydrology to Murugesu Sivapalan in 2003 -

Professor Murugesu Sivapalan's is the example that somebody from a modest background can reach the top by excellence, perseverance and a conducive family environment. It is difficult to imagine that a person of his stature started his studies as a boy who only had a kerosene lamp as a source of light.

Purely by his outstanding intellectual capabilities and his hard work he entered secondary school and university. He received a Bachelor degree of Civil Engineering from the University of Ceylon and, later, a Master degree in Water Resources Engineering from the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok. Although his heart was already close to Science and Research he spent four years working with a consulting company in Nigeria, West Africa. He then had the opportunity to go to Princeton University, USA, where he received Master and Ph.D. degrees in Civil Engineering. After a brief post doc position he moved again, this time to Australia, where he joined the renowned Centre for Water Research in Perth. He was soon promoted to Associate Professor and Professor.

Over his diverse career paths he has been immensely productive, 75 papers in the best international journals, for example, and his editorial activities include editorship of a celebrated book on Scale Issues in Hydrological Modelling. More importantly, the international recognition he gained for these publications is indeed exceptional. The recognition is an outgrowth of the groundbreaking new concepts he introduced. To name only a few, he introduced

hydrologic similarity concepts in derived flood frequency analyses,

the Representative Elementary Area Concept, which allows us to deal with small scale spatial variability of catchments in an aggregate way,

the Metachannel Concept, which collapses the stream network of a catchment into a single channel with effective hydraulic properties,

a new topographic soil moisture index that overcomes some of the limitations of the traditional indices,

a framework for watershed thermodynamics based on balance equations for mass, momentum, energy and entropy, including a closure scheme,

a framework that exploits simple signatures of catchments based on a downward approach of learning from the data, and he is currently

master minding an international research initiative focusing on the Problem of Ungauged Basins.

It is rare for a single individual to inject such a plethora of ideas, concepts and new insights into hydrologic research. These contributions have significantly advanced hydrology viewed as an Earth Science and have had a lasting impact. Professor Sivapalan considers these novel concepts as stepping stones towards a new theory of catchment hydrology and it will be exciting to see the full picture when the pieces of the jigsaw have been combined.

His international reputation is, of course, reflected in a number of indicators of esteem from his peers. He is a Fellow of the International Water Academy, a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering and a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union, and he has won a number of awards and medals. Among peers he is valued even more because of his enthusiasm and his ability to impart this enthusiasm on others. Murugesu Sivapalan is a continuous source of inspiration to us all.

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