The Prenatal Days of SIAM: Reminiscence and Tribute to I.E. Block

I. Edward Block, who will be retiring as managing director of SIAM this fall, was honored at a reception and dinner during the 1994 SIAM Annual Meeting in San Diego. At the dinner with Ed and his wife, Marline, were there three children --- Nancy, Kathie, and Steve --- and two of their grandchildren. All were enthralled by the speakers, who reminisced and paid tribute to Ed after dinner in a program hosted by Bob O'Malley.

Phil Davis, the first to speak, recalled the early days of his 45-year friendship with Ed, when they were both graduate students at Harvard during the "yeasty" days for mathematics that followed the Second World War. Phil's remarks were a condensed version of the text that appears here. Also speaking were Avner Friedman, John Hopcroft, Sam Gubins, Jim McKenna, Cathleen Morawetz, Margaret Wright, Burt Colvin, Bill LeVeque, Marshall Tulin, Dave Young, Bob Bellace, Seymour Parter, Peter Castro, and Jim Pool. Ed, serious and (inadvertently) funny in turn, ended the evening, to no one's surprise, with only a brief look back and a serious prescription for the future that of course included the development of a market for mathematics in industry.

By Philip J. Davis

I am not much given to mulling over the past; I find that such activity often calls forth regrets. But when Gail Corbett, the editor of SIAM News, asked me to recall my early association with I.E. Block, I pitched right in.

In the fall of 1946, I was walking out of Lowell Schoenfeld's graduate class in the theory of numbers, when I was approached by a fellow classmate who asked me what problems I had been assigned. My questioner, whom, of course, I had seen on a daily basis but to whom I had never spoken, was tall, slender, and wore a dark blue trench coat of U.S. Navy issue and shiny black leather shoes. He was the former Lt. I. Edward Block. The encounter was the beginning of a personal and professional friendship that has lasted to this day. Ed tells me that he wore the navy coat well into the mid-fifties.

Those years were very yeasty. The universities of the country were filled with returning veterans studying under the GI Bill. Some were completing their interrupted undergraduate education. Many others, myself included were pursuing graduate studies. The almost standard dress of Harvard students in those days was olive drab pants of army issues and dark brown loafers, topped off by a tweed jacket.

World War II was over. VE Day (Victory in Europe) was May 8, 1945. VJ Day (Victory in Japan) was August 14, 1945. Demobilization of the U.S. military forces set in fast. By September 1946, I was released from the U.S. Air Force Research, where I had served as an aerodynamicist at NACA (now NASA), Langley Field, Virginia, and had entered (actually reentered) Harvard Graduate School in the Department of Mathematics.

The faculty of the Department of Mathematics included Garrett Birkhoff, Joseph L. Walsh, Hassler Whitney, David V. Widder, Lars Ahlfors, Lynn Loomis, and George Mackey. There were visitors to the faculty --- for example, Henri Cartan and Arne Buerling. There were "peripheral" mathematicians who attended the local mathematical functions; among them was Ralph Boas, Jr., who was managing editor of Mathematical Reviews, then located at Brown in Providence, although Ralph lived in Cambridge. Ralph became my thesis adviser. Among the younger faculty, I recall Lowell Schoenfeld, Bob James, Gerhard Hochschild, and Andy Gleason.

A few buildings away, in the Department of Applied Science, were Richard von Mises, Stefan Bergman, and, occasionally, Max Schiffer.

Just adjacent was (Cmdr.) Howard H. Aiken's Computer Lab, where the relay clunker known as the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator was spewing out volume after volume of Bessel Functions of the First Kind (Annals of the Computation Lab. of Harvard University, 1946-1967) and where Jake Horowitz, a friend and returned GI, Lt. Grace M. Hopper, USN, and Constance Franklin (Norbert Wiener's sister) were employed.

Nearby, in the physics department, Philip Frank taught analytical mechanics and the philosophy of science. Frank's lectures got me seriously interested in the philosophy of mathematics, although early on I abandoned his logical positivism.

Down the river at MIT were Norbert Wiener, Norman Levinson, and Dirk J. Struik, to name but a very few of the institute's "Greats".

The system of contracts and grants in science and technology, which would be a great stimulus to both pure and applied science and technology, was just coming in at full force and would be in place during the whole of the Cold War. To fill in the history of those times just a bit more, I should point out that the Marshall Plan was announced by Secretary of State General George Marshall at the Harvard commencement in June 1947. The transistor was announced at Bell Labs around that time. The Korean War and McCarthyism surfaced in 1950.

Ed and I had a few classes together, and we saw each other not infrequently. I was already married and by 1949 had a child, and Ed would come over and have supper with us. One semester he decided to take Norbert Wiener's course (at MIT) on generalized harmonic analysis and reported to me that it was great and I ought to come along and just audit it. Ed had a car, and we used to drive down to MIT together.

Recalling these events gives me the chance to tell the story of my one and only personal encounter with Wiener. Wiener's course on generalized harmonic analysis was actually the framework within which he did what he pleased. The mathematics was frequently interrupted by animadversions on politics, mores, and the corrupt state of the press. (Wiener had been a newspaper reporter briefly for the Boston Herald). I'm sure that Ed took the course for possible applications of the material to his applied interests. I went along with him simply to say that I had sat at the feet of The Master.

The Master lectured, smoked his perpetual cigar, placed the butt on the chalk shelf wrote a few symbols picked up his cigar, sat reverse fashion at a student's desk, face to face with an adjacent and trembling graduate student, and talked about the war in Korea.

I already had my degree and was working on the theory of approximate integration, and this led me to a problem about non-absolutely convergent nonharmonic trigonometric series that I was unable to solve. One day, after class, I got up my courage and asked Wiener about it. He thought a while, and then said to me that he didn't know the answer and wasn't aware that anyone knew the answer. I was disappointed, of course, but it bolstered my ego to know that I at least had the ability to dream up hard questions.

Ed did his Ph.D. thesis ("Certain Singular Integrals and the Decomposition of Functions of Summable Square," 1952) under Joseph L. Walsh. There was a certain affinity between them because they were both ex-Navy. I was working on a joint paper with Walsh at the time, and I used to knock on Walsh's door in Widener Library for my half-hour just as Ed would be coming out from his sessions.

I recall one day visiting Ed in his dormitory room and hearing him carp that in its meetings and publications, the American Mathematical Society gave short shrift to the kinds of questions he was interested in, and more generally to applied mathematics. I asked him why he didn't do something about it and suggested that he speak to Walsh, who was then either president (1949-50) or a former president of AMS. Ed spoke to Walsh, who was personally quite sympathetic to applied mathematics, and I believe that Walsh may have spoken to his board about it. At any rate, nothing came of it. My recollection is that as a result of that cold shoulder, SIAM was conceived in Ed's mind.

To explain the negativism that Ed (and others) encountered, let me back up once again. As opposed to mathematicians in, say, the U.K. or Germany, the interests of most American mathematicians were quite pure. When World War II came to the US on December 7, 1941, many with mathematical training, whether of student age or older, served on active duty, but many others served by working on scientific developments in universities, in the armed forces, and in private industry. The work performed included developments in radar, underwater devices, atomic weaponry, ballistics, aeronautics, fluids, anti-aircraft, operations research, and cryptography. During this period also, a number of university departments of applied mathematics were created; for example, my own Division of Applied Mathematics at Brown dates from this period.

With the return of blessed peace, most mathematicians who had been recruited from abstract disciplines with a vengeance. They had had their belly full of mathematics in the service of creating human misery and sought an escape from this potentiality by withdrawing into the abstract.

Norbert Wiener, by contrast, in a dramatic public gesture, abandoned so-called "defense work" and began to study the mathematics of feedback in biological systems and the prospects of prosthetic devices. Even so, the prejudice against applications was severe. I was present when Wiener gave the 1949 Gibbs Lecture on his recent work and recall that during the lecture, Edward Kasner of Columbia heckled him by shouting out, "Wiener, what does this stuff have to do with mathematics?"

The greatest names in the field, John von Neumann, for example, suffered the disdain of the Community of the Pure when their interests turned to applications. The idea --- I call it Hardyism --- that the applications of mathematics are, for a variety of reasons, base and unworthy forms of the subject, has a long history extending back to classical antiquity. Moralists as well as mathematicians often mistakenly equate the pure with the good, and this equation was strongly operative in the U.S. in the immediate post-World War II years. I think, for example, that this feeling, combined with the structuralist view of mathematics developed in France, to which American mathematicians took as ducks to water, was partly responsible for the disaster in American mathematical education known as the New Math (mid-fifties). It is important to understand these attitudes in order to appreciate what Ed Block and the other founders of SIAM were up against.

To return to the personal. I had hoped to get a university position after a decent time spent as a postdoc, but the early fifties were not great years for university hiring. I recall one interview at an urban university where the salary offered me was meager to say the least, and where the department chairman told me that he personally raised chickens in his back yard. Reading this as an indication that he had to raise chickens to make ends meet, I thanked him and looked for employment elsewhere.

At the various government labs the situation was not so tight. Ultimately, in 1952, I took a job at the National Bureau of Standards in Washington and stayed there until 1963, when I moved to the Division of Applied Mathematics at Brown. In point of fact, the Bureau of Standards experience was an extremely fruitful one for me, widening my horizons tremendously.

At the same time, Ed, with his new Ph.D. in hand, moved back to his native Philadelphia and took a job at Philco. On the side, Ed promoted the idea of SIAM. Sympathetic scientists cam forward, a little money was found, and SIAM was born in 1951.

Washington is not far from Philadelphia, and Ed brought me in on the early days of the original SIAM journal. I remember meeting with him, David Young (then of the University of Maryland), and Robert Jackson (then of the University of Delaware) at David Young's house in Silver Spring, to work on what was to become the very first issue of that journal. None of us would then have predicted that from that modest periodical almost a dozen different SIAM journals would emerge: on control and optimization, on scientific computing, on matrix analysis, on numerical analysis, on algebraic and discrete mathematics, to name a few.

In 1957, John von Neumann died and Sputnik I and II were launched. This was the end of an era and the beginning of another. The Cold War intensified and SIAM flourished.

In the years that followed, particularly after I moved to Providence, my relationship to Ed and to SIAM thinned out a bit. I would talk to him from time to time on the phone and exchange news and ideas.

Ed's mind was then, and still is, full of a hundred ideas, plans, projects, suggestions, and worries. The surprising and wonderful think is that a large fraction of these ideas have come to fruition. Just think of the hundreds of meetings of SIAM. Think, equally, of the hundreds of significant publications in applied mathematics that have appeared under the SIAM imprint.

Ed assumed the full-time position of managing director of SIAM in 1976, but even before this, as a graduate student or when he was working for industry, I thought of him as Mr. SIAM. While an organization as important and as influential as SIAM must reflect the creative powers and industry of many, there is no doubt in my mind that it was raised to great heights by the vision, the drive, and the organizational and executive genius of Ed Block.

In 1985, Ed invited me to write some articles for SIAM News on a freelance basis. I accepted and am still at it. Ed plies me with ideas, he inundates me with suggestions and names of people to contact; at the same time, although he keeps close watch on all aspects of SIAM, he allows me a pretty free hand as regards subject matter and treatment.

The Cold War is over. Mathematics and its applications continue. It is one of the greatest productions of the human intellect. We create mathematics, and mathematics, in turn, shapes our perceptions and creates the world we live in. The work of Ed Block has contributed greatly to the continuity, the dissemination, the richness, and the longevity of its idea.

SIAM News Aug/Sept 1994, Vol. 27 No. 7