[Paleopsych] NYT: A Conversation With Peter Lax: From Budapest to Los Alamos, a Life in Mathematics

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Tue Mar 29 16:04:22 UTC 2005

A Conversation With Peter Lax: From Budapest to Los Alamos, a Life in Mathematics
March 29, 2005


    In the world of modern mathematics, Dr. Peter D. Lax, professor
    emeritus at New York University, ranks among the giants.

    As a teenage refugee from the Nazis, he worked on the Manhattan
    Project at Los Alamos, where met the likes of Hans Bethe, Richard
    Feynman and Edward Teller.

    As a young mathematician, he was a protégé of John von Neumann, a
    father of modern computing.

    Dr. Lax's own work, at N.Y.U.'s Courant Institute of Mathematical
    Sciences, has often straddled the territory where theoretical
    mathematics and applied physics meet.

    He is widely known for his work on wave theory, and his discoveries
    there are used for weather prediction, airplane design and
    telecommunications signaling.

    This month, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters announced
    that Dr. Lax, who is 78, would receive its third Abel Prize,
    accompanied by $980,000, an honor created to compensate for the
    absence of a mathematics category among the Nobel Prizes.

    "I don't know what I'll be doing with all that money," he said in an
    interview last week at his apartment in Manhattan. "I won't give it
    all away. I'm not rich. Some of it I will give to good causes, mainly
    in science."

    Q. When did you come to the United States?

    A. My parents, my brother and I left Budapest in late November of
    1941. I was 15½. We were able to get out - we are Jewish - because my
    father was a physician. The American consul in Budapest was his friend
    and patient.

    And so we went by train across Europe, through Germany in train
    compartments filled with Wehrmacht troops. We sailed for America from
    Lisbon on Dec. 5, 1941.

    While we were on the high seas, the war broke out. So we left as
    immigrants and arrived in New York as enemy aliens. Within a month, my
    brother and I were in high school. I went to Stuyvesant.

    Q. In Hungary, you were a math prodigy. How did the New York public
    schools measure up?

    A. I didn't take any math courses at Stuyvesant. I knew more than most
    of the teachers. But I had to take English and American history, and I
    quickly fell in love with America. In history, we had a text, and the
    illustrations were contemporary cartoons. I thought that was
    marvelous. I couldn't imagine a Hungarian textbook taking such a
    less-than-worshipful attitude.

    Q. When were you drafted, and how did the Army affect your career?

    A. In 1944. I was 18 and I spent six very pleasant months at Texas
    A&M, at an Army training program in engineering there. Later, I was
    sent to Los Alamos, and that was like science fiction. There were all
    these legends everywhere.

    I arrived about six weeks before the A-bomb test. There was not too
    much secrecy inside the fence. That was Oppenheimer's policy. People
    told me, "We're building an atomic bomb, partly radium, but maybe
    plutonium, which doesn't exist in the universe, but we are
    manufacturing it at Hanford."

    Q. Were the personality and policy clashes between Teller and J.
    Robert Oppenheimer evident even then?

    A. I was the low man on the totem pole. But I understood what was
    going on. Looking back, there were two issues: should we have dropped
    the A-bomb and should we have built a hydrogen bomb?

    Today the revisionist historians say that Japan was already beaten,
    and so the bomb wasn't necessary. I disagree. I remember being in the
    Army when the Germans surrendered, and we all assumed we were going to
    be sent to the Pacific next. I also think that Teller was right about
    the hydrogen bomb because the Russians were sure to develop it. And if
    they had been in possession of it, and the West not, they would have
    gone into Western Europe. What would have held them back?

    Teller was certainly wrong in the 1980's about Star Wars. And that is
    still with us today. And it's draining a lot of money we don't have.

    What I think was not right of Teller was to bring Star Wars to the
    White House though the back door, without going through the scientific

    The system doesn't work. It's a phantasmagoria. But once you had
    Reagan charmed by it and Bush charmed by it, it became very hard to
    put an end of something that the president wants.

    Q. What do you think your mentor John von Neumann would think about
    the ubiquity of computers today?

    A. I think he'd be surprised. But nobody could have predicted that
    everybody and their cousin would have personal computers - although I
    think of all people, he would have figured it out. Nobody can predict
    things, but you can see where something's heading.

    He could see very far, very far. He saw the use of computers very
    broadly. But remember, he died in 1957 and did not live to see
    transistors replace vacuum tubes. Once you had transistors, you could
    miniaturize computers.

    Q. Did you know John Nash, the protagonist of the film "A Beautiful

    A. I did, and I had enormous respect for him. He solved three very
    difficult mathematical problems and then he turned to the Riemann
    hypothesis, which is deep mystery. By comparison, Fermat's is nothing.
    With Fermat's - once they found a connection to another problem - they
    could do it. But the Riemann hypothesis, there are many connections,
    and still it cannot be done. Nash tried to tackle it and that's when
    he broke down.

    Q. Do you believe that high school and college math are poorly taught?

    A. By and large, that's correct. I would like to see the schools of
    education teach much more math than methods of teaching and
    educational psychology. In mathematics, nothing takes the place of
    real knowledge of the subject and enthusiasm for it.

    Q. What do you consider your most significant contributions?

    A. There are about five or six things that had an impact. Among them
    is my work on shock waves, where I clarified shock wave theory and
    combined it with practical numerical methods for calculating flows
    with shock waves.

    At Los Alamos, this was important to understand how weapons work, but
    it is equally important in understanding how airplanes at high speed
    fly through the air.

    Ralph Phillips and I came up with the Lax-Phillips semigroup in
    scattering theory that was a new idea and could be used in quite
    surprising number of directions. This helped understand radar

    Recently Martin Kruskal and his collaborators have unexpectedly
    discovered brand new completely integrable systems, and I have helped
    clarify some things about such systems.

    I was able to analyze, with my student Dave Levermore, what happens to
    solutions of dispersive systems when dispersion tends to zero.

    It is a rather surprising new phenomenon, but not easy to express in
    layman's terms. In a report to the American Philosophical Society I
    put it into the form of haiku:

      Speed depends on size
      Balanced by dispersion
      Oh, solitary splendor.

    Q. Has mathematics become too complex for anyone to understand all of

    A. Compared to physics or chemistry, mathematics is a very broad
    subject. It is true that nobody can know it all, or even nearly all.
    But it is also true that as mathematics develops, things are
    simplified and unusual connections appear.

    Geometry and algebra for instance, which were so very different 100
    years ago, are intricately connected today.

More information about the paleopsych mailing list