In response to:
The Annual Meeting of the National Academy of Sciences from the July 1, 1971 issue
To the Editors:
I read with interest, in the July 1 issue, Steve Smale’s account of the spring ’71 meeting of the National Academy of Science, my first one as well as his. In it he describes his personal crusade to restrain Handler, and complains that he was put down hard by the math section. I was present at that section meeting and can report that the put down consisted of these words: What do you propose that we do? The question seemed to astonish Steve; apparently he hadn’t prepared a plan of action, nor thought that any was necessary.
What a pity if the middle-aged Turks now entering positions of influence in science, instead of settling down to the unglamorous and grinding work needed to bring about change, are content to posture; they are merely adding another comic figure to the cast of characters in the theater of the absurd.
Peter D. Lax
Professor of Mathematics
New York University
New York City
Steve Smale replies:
In reply to Peter Lax, my memory of that part of the meeting is as follows: On the question of a “plan of action,” I proposed that the math section make its opinion felt in the academy that it was wrong for Handler, especially using his forum as President, to make such statements on automobile exhaust as being rarely if ever medically serious, etc. I received no support. In the following discussion, arguments raised against action included 1) that maybe Handler was misquoted, 2) he wasn’t speaking for the NAS, 3) I shouldn’t try to restrict Handler’s free speech and 4) that the normal business of the math section didn’t extend to such matters.
I also feel perhaps it is unfair for Lax to imply that I haven’t worked to bring about change. For example, as a member of the Council of the American Mathematics Society for six years, I made quite a bit of effort to try to get the Society to relate to some of the broader social questions of the day. I certainly have tried to use any “position of influence” I had to stop American intervention in Vietnam, to give support to mathematicians and other intellectuals who have suffered under the repression in the Soviet Union, Brazil, and the US.
Perhaps one of the more effective methods of bringing about changes in the scientific establishment is to communicate the workings of its main organization. That is what I’ve tried to do.