A Mind for Math: Peter D. Lax

A Mind for Math: Peter D. Lax

A Darwin Society donor to the Academy reflects on a career in mathematics, the Manhattan Project, and the paradox of education.

Lauded for his numerous contributions to pure and applied mathematics and physics, and his integral role in the development of modern computational mathematics, Peter D. Lax is one of the greatest minds in his field. He has earned the highest honors a mathematician can receive for his versatility and ability to connect abstract mathematical knowledge with real-world problems. Among the many major mathematical results and numerical methods to his credit are the Lax-Milgram Lemma, the Lax Equivalence Theorem, the Lax-Friedrichs Scheme, the Lax-Wendroff Scheme, the Lax Entropy Condition, and the Lax-Levermore Theory. About his extraordinarily nimble mind, he is quite humble: "In mathematics, your brain is wired somewhat differently," he says.

Lax is an Honorary Life Member of the Academy and served on the Board of Governors from 1986 to 1987. He has continued his support of NYAS as an active member of the Charles Darwin Society.

Born in Budapest in 1926, Lax displayed a natural aptitude and interest in mathematics that was fostered from an early age. "In Hungary, there was the tradition to mentor talented young people, so at every step I got advice and help," he says. Prominent mathematician Rozsa Peter was his primary tutor.

In 1941, the Lax family caught the last boat to leave Lisbon, two days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, to settle in New York City. The gifted 15-year-old Peter briefly attended Stuyvesant High School before winning the opportunity to study with Richard Courant at New York University. "Courant was known to be very good with young people, and that was a wonderful experience," Lax says.

At 18, Lax was drafted and, after basic training, sent to Texas A&M to study engineering. In 1945, he went to the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory to participate in the Manhattan Project. Working there with some of the greatest minds of the time was "like living science fiction," he says. He stayed at Los Alamos for a year, finished his degree, and returned to NYU to pursue a PhD with Courant as his thesis advisor. In 1949, Lax went back to Los Alamos, and throughout the 1950s spent almost every summer at the lab as a consultant.

It was at Los Alamos, under the direction of fellow Hungarian mathematician John von Neumann, that Lax was first exposed to computational mathematics. "The development of computers was in a large part motivated by the needs of the atomic weapons program," Lax says. "You can't build an atomic bomb just by trial and error—you have to be able to quickly calculate how the design will work. Von Neumann was very broad-minded—he saw it was important not only for the atomic program, but for other engineering and technology projects, and also for pure science."

In 1958, Lax became a professor at NYU, and he has remained at the Courant Institute ever since. Throughout his career, he has contributed to both pure and applied fields in math and science, making notable discoveries in fluid dynamics and shock waves, integrable systems, solitonic physics, and computational mathematics, among others. Among his numerous awards and honors are the 1986 National Medal of Science, the 1987 Wolf Prize, the 1992 Steele Prize, and the 1995 NYU Distinguished Teaching Award. In 2005, he achieved the highest award in mathematics, the Abel Prize, for his "groundbreaking contributions to the theory and application of partial differential equations and the computation of their solutions."

Lax is presently at work refashioning a textbook he first wrote 40 years ago, with his late wife, mathematician Anneli Cahn-Lax. "It was the first calculus book with applications and computing, and it had lots of good ideas, but it was spectacularly unsuccessful at the time," Lax says. With the help of collaborator Maria Terrell at Cornell University, he hopes the revamped text will be better received.

Lax is passionate about the need for education reform. "I've seen for a long time what I call the paradox of education: Science and mathematics are growing by leaps and bounds on the research frontier, so what we teach in high school, college, and graduate school is falling behind by leaps and bounds." But by fostering intimate cooperation between research mathematicians and educators, he says, we can "simplify the teaching of old topics, and make room for new ones."

The Charles Darwin Society
Though the Darwin Society, the Academy recognizes a select group of donors who demonstrate generous philanthropic commitment to the Academy. To learn more about the Darwin Society please contact Kiryn Haslinger, Director, Development, 212.298.8673 or khaslinger@nyas.org.