A CONVERSATION WITH PETER LAX
Joe Tabacca for The New York Times
Dr. Peter D. Lax's work often straddles the territory where theoretical mathematics and applied physics meet.
From Budapest to Los Alamos, a Life in Mathematics
By CLAUDIA DREIFUS
Published: March 29, 2005
n the world of modern mathematics, Dr. Peter D. Lax, professor emeritus at New York University, ranks among the giants.
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
As a young mathematician, he was a protégé of John von Neumann, a father of modern computing.
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?
My parents, my brother and I left Budapest in late November of 1941. I
was 15˝. We were able to get out - we are Jewish - because my father
was a physician. The American consul in Budapest was his friend and
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?
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
Q. When were you drafted, and how did the Army affect your career?
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?
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?
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?
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.
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?
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 Mind"?
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
Q. Do you believe that high school and college math are poorly taught?
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?
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
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 pictures.
Recently Martin Kruskal
and his collaborators have unexpectedly discovered brand new completely
integrable systems, and I have helped clarify some things about such
I was able to analyze, with my student Dave Levermore,
what happens to solutions of dispersive systems when dispersion tends
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 it?
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.
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