Professor Simon A. Levin was awarded the Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences 2004 for his insights into the effects of scale on ecosystems.
At the basis of Simon Levin’s work is his use of mathematical techniques and models to understand the properties of ecosystems, i.e. the biological communities that inhabit specific areas, including all associated living and non-living factors. Levin unites theory and empiricism, with ‘scale’ as his leitmotiv.
Natural populations and their internal coherence are influenced in part by time, space and complexity. Something that occurs on one order of scale may have a very different impact on another. Levin seeks concrete answers to such questions as: when does an ecosystem collapse? How resilient is it? What is the value of a single species, and what can the ecosystem do without? What role do evolution and the biosphere play? In other words: what are the dynamics of ecosystems? The answers to these questions are highly important not only for research into biodiversity but also for environmental protection.
Levin has shown that many of the properties of ecosystems vary according to fixed patterns and that we often really only understand phenomena when we know what is going on at different orders of scale. His insights have led to fundamental changes in the discipline of ecology, which until the early nineties had been divided into a number of subdisciplines, each of them myopic in its own way. What Levin did was offer a pair of ‘glasses’: his article ‘The Problem of Pattern and Scale in Ecology’, which appeared in Ecology. It became the most highly cited work in the entire field in the 1990s.
Born in 1941 in the United States, Simon Asher Levin has conducted research in mathematical biology for more than forty years. He began by studying mathematics and took his Ph.D. in this subject in 1964 from the University of Maryland, College Park. In 1965 he became a researcher at Cornell University (Ithaca, N.Y.), where he quickly joined the Ecology and Mathematics department. Levin was appointed Professor of Applied Mathematics and Ecology in 1977, a post he held until 1992, when he left Cornell for Princeton University (New Jersey). Today he is the George M. Moffett Professor of Biology at Princeton and the director of the Center for Biocomplexity.
Simon Levin is an exceptionally active scientist. A list of his management positions, editorial posts and lectures, the meetings and conferences he has organised or co-organised, and the Ph.D. candidates and post-docs he has supervised runs to dozens of pages. Added to this is his long list of publications (including the 4,800-page Encyclopedia of Biodiversity, of which he is the editor-in-chief). He has been the recipient of many prizes and marks of recognition. For example, in 2000 he was made a member of the American National Academy of Sciences and in 2001 was presented with the Akira Okubo Lifetime Achievement Award.
Levin is said to be a gifted speaker and an excellent teacher, capable of inspiring and motivating researchers and making his insights comprehensible for the general public. He also influences the international research agenda, for example as the chair of the Executive Committee of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), an interdisciplinary research institute based in Austria which studies the human dimensions of global change.