LAS Research Award Winners

November 18, 1999

Bill Sasser

[Editor’s note: It’s almost a year overdue, but Inside Tulane has finally caught up with the 1998 LAS research award and, late being better than never, is delighted to report on it.]

Last April, chemistry professor Mel Levy and classics professor Dennis Kehoe were honored with the Liberal Arts and Sciences Faculty Research Award, in recognition of their outstanding scholarly achievements.

A Tulane faculty member since 1982, Kehoe has focused his scholarship on the law and economics of rural life in the Roman Empire. Researching the social and legal structures of the Roman agrarian economy, Kehoe offers new insights into the degree to which Roman law and legal institutions affected relationships between Roman landowners and the bulk of the empire’s farming population.

A member of the Tulane faculty since 1977 and an elected fellow of the American Physical Society, Levy has broken new ground in the field of electronic structure theory. His main contributions are in density-functional theory, an area of research pioneered by physicist Walter Kohn at the University of California- Santa Barbara.

Working in collaboration with physicist Pierre Hohenberg, in 1964 Kohn simplified the existing quantum theory used to calculate the complex waves that control the energies of electrons. The Hohenberg-Kohn theorem allows scientists to use computers to measure the properties of complex waves, a phenomenon until then thought too complex to calculate.

For this reason, Kohn was awarded the 1998 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Levy was the first researcher to take the Hohenberg-Kohn theorem fully to its next step, developing a generalized formulation that has extended the theorem to cases in which it originally did not hold. Levy’s research has been praised for making the Hohenberg-Kohn (HK) theory clearer and broadening its range of applicability.

As Kohn has stated in a special density-functional review volume, the “developments of Mel Levy and Elliott Lieb (of Princeton University) have considerable value in allowing a simpler and clearer derivation of the HK variational principle.” Levy’s current work involves developing new methods for understanding the density functional F (that is a function of a function), using coordinate scaling and other techniques.

Part of Levy’s research is in collaboration with John Perdew, Tulane professor of physics. Their work has shed new light on how molecules work at a subatomic level and how they can be measured by computers. This research is instrumental in the design of new medicines, chemicals and other synthetic materials.

“I’d like to express my gratitude for the encouragement of the chemistry department, particularly during my early years here when the density-functional theory was quite controversial,” said Levy. Kehoe’s latest book, Investment, Profit, and Tenancy: the Jurists and the Roman Economy (University of Michigan Press, 1997), investigates upper-class Roman conceptions of investment and profit in agriculture and traces how these conceptions affected relationships between Roman landowners and the farm tenants on whom they largely depended for their incomes.

Using primary source material for his research, Kehoe concludes that Roman legal institutions played a larger role in the agrarian economy than previously thought, with legal authorities often striking a balance between enforcing Roman law and recognizing tenants’ traditional rights.

His current research examines to what extent disputes involving landowners and small farmers were resolved through legal institutions and whether the Roman government followed a consistent policy in defining and regulating the rights and obligations of these groups. The study will help determine the specific features that distinguished the ancient economy from the economies of other periods of history.

“No other study has treated together in a comprehensive manner the Roman agrarian economy, Roman law and the social concerns of the Roman government,” Kehoe said. The executive committee of the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences selects winners of the annual LAS Faculty Research Award. All regular members of the liberal arts and sciences faculty are eligible for the honor, which includes a $500 cash award.

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