Happy 85th, Phil!

January 6, 2008


Philip Davis, in the mid-1980s, when he was first writing for SIAM News.

"My wife and I were born on January 2 of the same year, and years later we were married on January 2. Now let the combinatorialists and probabilists of the world compute, using whatever assumptions of probability they wish, the expected number of couples in the United States who can amaze their listeners with similar claims."

Reviewing a book on coincidences in 2005, Phil Davis offered that personal favorite from his own life. The review didn't give the year of his birth, but in a recent phone conversation, he mentioned that he would be turning 85 in 2008. Here at SIAM News we consider this milestone of our well-loved author one that should be marked in print---regrettably a few weeks late. So Happy Birthday and Happy Anniversary, Phil and Hadassah!

Phil's coincidence had a sequel, which he related in his review, characteristically using the story to bring up an idea he wanted to introduce:

"A few years ago, returning from a trip to Europe and passing through Immigration at Boston's Logan Airport, my wife and I presented our passports to the immigration officer; he examined them and held us up. He had never seen anything like this before.
. . . At least one of the passports must be invalid.
. . . It took a bit of explaining before he let us through. (Question: How does one explain what is? And how, the philosopher Alfred Ayer once asked me, does one know what is?)"

Over the years, Phil has forwarded countless e-mail messages to SIAM News, usually with the subject line "fan mail"---from readers writing to praise, agree with, quibble with, expand on Phil's articles. Based on these messages, Cleve Moler is not alone in turning immediately to Phil's article in any new issue of SIAM News.

Some readers of SIAM News may not know that Phil has written many books, of many kinds. Gina Kolata, reviewing his 1997 Mathematical Encounters of the Second Kind, wrote that if she had to be stranded in an airport, she would like to have Phil stranded with her. Today, with being stranded at an airport numbingly routine, Kolata's endorsement of Phil--- "such a raconteur"---carries more weight than ever. Cleve Moler mentions an early book of Phil's, on matrices, as well as a book of a completely different type: The Mathematical Experience (1981), written with Reuben Hersh and winner of a National Book Critics Circle Prize. Recalling the genesis of that book, Hersh writes that in 1979 he was on sabbatical, at Brown to work with Phil. Each had "a big writing project," Hersh continues:

"The idea was to provide mutual support in two different projects. But halfway through my project, I collapsed. I was in despair.?I handed over my unfinished attempts at a book, gave them to Phil and Hadassah, saying, ‘Here, take this, do whatever you want with it. I give up!' The result of their rescue work, merging the two projects, ended up winning a ‘prestigious' prize, and becoming a widely read, well-known, co-authored book.My subsequent career and life were greatly enhanced. My debt to Phil and Hadassah is eternal."

AK Peters published Phil's most recent book, Mathematics and Common Sense: A Case of Creative Tension, at the end of 2006. Reviewing it for The Scientist, John Ball wrote: "There is hardly an aspect of human existence to which mathematics cannot contribute understanding---though that is not to say that the value of human life can be reduced to a set of equations. . . . In bringing some of these crucial issues to a wider audience, Davis has made a valuable contribution to the public understanding of the importance of the subject."


Another admirer of Phil's talent for connecting with a wider audience is his Brown colleague David Mumford, who wrote to SIAM News:


"I moved to Brown to work with the Pattern Theory Group of Grenander, Geman, Gidas and McClure, but one of the unexpected bonuses was getting to know Phil Davis. I had read and enjoyed his book with Reuben Hersh but never met Phil.

"We have had an ongoing discussion of the philosophy, history, practise and meaning of mathematics ever since. He is one of the few mathematicians I know who can stand back and re-examine what we math people do, taking nothing for granted and coming up with provocative ways of seeing the enterprise.

"One of the topics we come back to periodically is a debate on whether the essential ideas of mathematics are eternal and written in stone---the Platonic view---or whether and to what extent they are influenced by social factors. I am a die-hard Platonist and Phil is a proponent of social relativity. These differing views have not prevented us from co-authoring a paper on Poincaré's predictions for the 20th century. Recently, I have been trying to persuade him that "categories" are real math and not fluff---that, for example, category theory explains the lack of a single compelling definition of what numbers ‘are' (about which he has written).

"Assuming he does not get baked because he keeps his office at 80+ degrees, I want to wish him many more years of productive work."

It would be impossible in a short space to convey the extent of Phil's contributions to SIAM and SIAM News. For me, as the editor of SIAM News, working with Phil for more than twenty years has been inspiring, enriching, humbling, and---always---surprising. Readers can search the online archives for articles they might have missed. But some of the joys of working with Phil have come from things never intended for publication. One such piece was an imaginary interview with a prominent and controversial Austrian novelist (Phil took matters into his own hands when she declined to be interviewed by him). And very recently, a message arrived with the subject line "Reminiscences of Norman Mailer." Briefly believing this one to be invented as well, I soon learned otherwise: Days after Mailer's death, Phil put together some recollections of his friendship with Mailer, dating from their years at Harvard, and telling of a common interest in the short story. As the world benefited from Mailer's literary output, SIAM and the mathematical world have abundant reasons to be grateful that Phil abandoned the short story and turned his efforts to mathematics and, ultimately, writing about mathematics and ideas touching on it that he does his best to get mathematicians thinking about.

Many happy returns, Phil!--GRC


Renew SIAM · Contact Us · Site Map · Join SIAM · My Account
Facebook Twitter Youtube