Acoustical Society of America
Biennial Award - 1984

Peter Nicholas Mikhalevsky

There is a saying whispered among faculty at MIT, and likely at other colleges of science and engineering, to the effect that teaching would be a first-rate career, if only one could do so without students. Of course the saying is facetious and, for me, there is no better example of the joy of teaching than my experience with Peter Mikhalevsky. Within months of arrival at MIT in 1975, he was thoroughly and thoughtfully engaged in doctoral research on fluctuations of signals propagated to long ranges in the ocean, which ultimately included stochastic descriptions of noise as well as signals. During this period Peter greatly expanded his knowledge of phase-random multipath processes in the ocean, in the course of which he systematically uncovered the stochastic properties of amplitudes, amplitude rates, and their joint functions. He built upon these findings to understand the effects of signal modulation on fluctuations, and to contribute to the development of improved models of signal detection. In short order the teacher became the student and the student the teacher—an arrangement that surely makes a career in teaching a joy.

Peter was a U.S. Navy officer during his stay at MIT from 1975 to 1979, having been selected to attend under one of the more enlightened policies of the military. After leaving MIT he served the Navy with assignments at the Naval Underwater Systems Center and the Pentagon. These activities included research on partially saturated multipath processes and on propagation in the Arctic Ocean. As noted in the award of the A.B. Wood Medal and Prize for 1983 by the Institute of Acoustics (U.K.). "It is not easy to pursue a Naval career and a scientific career simultaneously, ...and Peter Mikhalevsky has proved himself adept at both (the) theory and practice" implicit in such a combination.

That Peter elected a military career is perhaps not surprising given his family history. His maternal great great grandfather was General James Longstreet of the Confederate States. His paternal grandfather was an officer in the Russian Imperial Guards, who fled when the communist government began to question his loyalty to the new regime. Fortunately for us he came to the U.S., arriving with three-month old Nicholas S. Mikhalevsky, who was to father Peter and to achieve the rank of Captain in the U.S. Navy.

In looking back to his earliest serious interest in acoustics, Peter pays less attention to his first Naval assignments (1972–1974) as an anti-submarine warfare officer or to the influence of his father who had a substantial career with ONR. Instead Peter points to a mathematics professor at Harvard where Peter received his B.A. and M.A. (1968–72), who assigned a term project in digital computation. Peter elected to try ray acoustics which turned his casual interest to a real one, especially when he attracted favorable attention by making substantial progress on a problem we all know to be tough. Peter tells me that the sound speed profiles he then used to specify the ocean were totally unrealistic, but characteristically he went on to study oceanography and to satisfy his curiosity and thereby to shape his career towards underwater acoustics.

The Navy thread can be said to be quite important in a different cut of Peter's fabric. In 1974 he was homeported in Athens, Greece, where he met Litza N. Pentaskoofi, whom he continued to court and then to marry during his next duty-station at MIT. I recall two things with special pleasure regarding Peter and Litza during this period. Their first child was born precisely during Peter's oral doctoral qualification examination. He disarmed us all by passing cigars among us at the start, and then won us over by responding surely and thoughtfully to our probes, even though visibly excited and naturally elated with his new family. Not too long after, Peter, Litza, and their daughter Lara moved into an undergraduate dormitory at MIT as Resident Tutors. They established a new tradition among tutors by keeping their apartment door fully ajar at all but the most private times, affording dorm students the comfort of family life and easy access to mature advice. I am told that friendships made by Peter and Litza in those years continue to this day, despite difficulties inherent in disparate locations and diverse career interests.

Peter retired from the Navy in early 1984, after 12 years of duty. MIT is fortunate to have attracted him to a professional career, with many individuals at MIT including me looking forward to close association with Peter as he embarks upon a new career phase. One of the remarkable characteristics of Peter is that he managed to study so close to the cutting edge of underwater acoustics that in welcoming him to his new phase we have no doubt about the ease of transition.

It is with deep pleasure that I congratulate Peter on the occasion of the Biennial Award. He is scientifically gifted. He understands the context and the need for application of science in solution of societal problems. He is a warm, cooperative, dedicated individual. Best of all, he is devoted to Litza and his children Lara and Nicholas, who can be properly proud of Peter's accomplishments, and who can take a fair share of credit for the familial support they have provided.