Dimos Poulikakos is a man of many interests, one of which is music – he would love to be able to play the piano brilliantly, or the guitar, or even the violin. But somehow that hasn’t happened yet. As a child, he turned to other activities, sport in particular, playing both football and basketball. Nowadays, he swims and spends time on the tennis court; he also enjoys hiking and photography. After his retirement, he hopes to take up the many invitations he has received to conferences, and so combine something pleasant with something useful – travel and keeping abreast of research. So it’s hardly surprising that Dimos Poulikakos is looking forward to his retirement. But a few years ago this wasn’t so: Poulikakos counts himself fortunate to have been one of the few professors to be granted an extension beyond retirement age. “It meant I could finish off my ongoing projects, and I’m very grateful to ETH for that.”
Grasping the key concepts of thermodynamics
Poulikakos has enjoyed a highly successful career: his work on thermodynamics has met with international acclaim, and he also gained recognition within ETH, serving as a member of the ETH Research Commission (2001-2005), as Vice President for Research (2005-2007), and Head of the Department of Mechanical and Process Engineering (2011-2014). His commitments have extended beyond the university too; he was, for instance, elected to the Swiss Academy of Engineering Sciences in 2008 and served as President of its Scientific Advisory Board from 2012 to 2015. Since January 2020, he has chaired the Programmes division of the National Research Council at the Swiss National Science Foundation.
Yet, when asked about the highpoints of his career, Poulikakos comes up with a different aspect: “Teaching and interacting with students and doctoral students has always been immensely important to me.” Right from the outset, his lectures on the fundamentals of thermodynamics blazed a new trail. He was keen for students to understand basic concepts such as energy, enthalpy and entropy, as well as the significance of the laws of thermodynamics – in depth, and on their own. This understanding would then serve as a basis from which they could develop ground-breaking technologies. Poulikakos believed that teaching fundamental thermodynamics through existing technologies, such as the steam turbine or the internal combustion engine, limited the students’ understanding and didn’t reflect the universal relevance of the subject.