People, Prizes, Politics

June 23, 1999


Making a (four-minute) case for mathematics before the House appropriations subcommittee responsible for the National Science Foundation budget, SIAM president Gilbert Strang found himself addressing one of his former applied math students---Rep. John E. Sununu (R-NH). (Photograph (c) Marty LaVor.)

From the SIAM President
Gilbert Strang

I have two unusual events to tell you about, and another that is periodic but extremely important: SIAM's Annual Meeting. You can expect a much more international column next time, right after ICIAM in Edinburgh.

The first event was my very brief experience in front of Congress. Well, a small subset of Congress: I spoke to four members and several staffers from the subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee that recommends the budget for NSF. (David Colton of Delaware gave similar testimony, very successfully, to the corresponding subcommittee for DOD. Good going.) The testimony only lasts four minutes! Instead of reading from the prepared script, I tried to make those minutes less formal and just talked to the committee (very nervously).

One nice thing happened. After we walked through the Senate side of the Capitol and reached Room 143 on the House side, I recognized the Congressman who was then in the chair---John E. Sununu (R-NH), who was once a student in my applied math class! He is the son of the former New Hampshire governor, and tremendously pleasant to talk to. And as acting chairman he was extremely effective (possibly more so than in solving PDEs twelve years ago).

I want to add that the clerk of the committee (Frank Cushing) was highly professional. I came away very impressed. The other members present were Representatives Price (D-NC), Meek (D-FL), and Northup (R-KY)---who was in the chair when I spoke. All were very friendly to mathematics. (You will understand that I have no illusions about affecting history in four minutes.) My request was to move forward with a 15% increase in the NSF budget for mathematics. The current figure is only 2% (and events in Kosovo are reducing the expected surplus). This visit was part of a JPBM effort that will continue.

The second unusual event was the inauguration of the Clay Mathematics Institute on May 10. CMI will be centered in Cambridge but will contribute to research worldwide. Landon Clay is a Bostonian who is committed to the support of mathematics. The highlight of the ceremony was a beautifully delivered lecture by Andrew Wiles (you can guess the subject). I learned that the area of a right triangle with all integer sides cannot be a perfect square. This comes from the fact that x^4 + y^4 cannot equal z^4---the one case that Fermat definitely proved. The lecture included a photograph of the famous margin (which was pretty wide). Two key members of the CMI Board are Arthur Jaffe of Harvard and General William Odom, former director of the National Security Agency. Both have been national leaders in speaking out for the support of mathematics. The creation of CMI is one more good step.

Finally, and most important, here are a few memories of the Annual Meeting in Atlanta. The lectures were excellent. Everyone who heard Richard Tapia's I.E. Block Community Lecture will remember his home movies, especially the whole family's support for his son's bike racing. The mathematics was hidden, but the second derivative was rather important (especially in the case of dragsters). Charles Peskin, the von Neumann lecturer, showed how his immersed boundary method can capture the muscle contractions and blood flow in the heart. The valves are tough to model---and his code is available for other fluid-solid interactions. SIAM's activity group in optimization held its conference immediately before the Annual Meeting, and those talks too went extremely well. Diversity Day brought another strong turnout, especially from Rice and the colleges in Atlanta. And there were favorable comments on the awards luncheon---an event that will be repeated. The new prizes went to Toby Driscoll, Virginia Torczon, and Wim Sweldens, for outstanding papers in SIAM journals, and Bob Kohn received the Kleinman Prize.

There is a very big difference between reading about a meeting and being there. The personal contacts are so important. I know it isn't possible to go to every conference. I just want to say that SIAM is your society and it is moving forward (at this moment into life sciences and imaging science, and so much else). With your support this will go on happening at SIAM.


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