Politics Impinges upon Mathematics

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Politics Impinges upon Mathematics


In the second half of the twentieth century, the many profound changes in society made it inevitable that intellectuals, including mathematicians, would get caught up in political conflict. Some actively bore the standard of their personal beliefs. Others were simply targets of other people's crusades. Political conflicts, sometimes virulent enough to destroy academic careers, continue to be a feature of university life.


While mathematicians often spend their careers working on purely abstract concepts, they do not work in a vacuum. Most are employed either by universities or governments, both of which are extremely political institutions. All function within larger societies that vary in their tolerance of those with different backgrounds or ideas.

The ideal of academic life is the freedom to speak the truth as one sees it, and to exchange ideas without threat of retaliation. However, like most ideals, this one is not always realized in practice. Universities operate under governmental regimes that vary in their tolerance for free speech. Even absent governmental control, the academy is not completely unconstrained. Faculty members depend upon grant-making organizations for their financial support. Their careers and credentials are dependent upon the university organization and their place in its hierarchy. Such institutions are made up of human beings, with their various likes, dislikes, and prejudices. Often these are framed in political terms.

In government research facilities around the world, national security arguments may be brought to bear to discriminate against someone who has unpopular ideas or who belongs to an unpopular group. Many mathematicians work in particularly sensitive areas, for example cryptography and ballistics, where such arguments are easy to make. Governments also control a significant percentage of the grants and other funds that flow into universities.

Some mathematicians refused on principle to go along with the "witch hunt" atmosphere of the McCarthy era in the United States in the 1950s, during which many academics were forced to sign declarations that they were not members of the Communist Party. Others became involved in anti-war movements and fell afoul of their government or university administration. Some belonged to ethnic, religious, or other groups that were discriminated against. As a result, many left their universities, their academic discipline, or their country.

At the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, Congress became consumed with rooting out Communist influences in American life. Under the influence of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the Senate Permanent Investigating Subcommittee and the House Un-American Activities Committee were established. During this period many writers, artists, and performers as well as academics were "blacklisted" for their political views and pressured to inform upon their colleagues. Officials of many universities bowed to government pressure and required their faculty to sign "loyalty oaths."

At the University of California 31 professors were driven off the faculty for refusing on principle to sign the loyalty oath stating that they were not members of the Communist Party. None had been accused of being a Communist, and all had been found by the tenure committee to be competent teachers and scholars. Among the mathematicians who opposed the University of California loyalty oath was Julia Robinson (1919-1985). She was holding the rank of part-time lecturer, the lowest position in the academic hierarchy, when in 1976 she became the first female mathematician elected to the National Academy of Sciences and was finally offered a professorship. Mathematicians Hans Lewy and Pauline Sperry (1885-1967) were fired from Berkeley for refusing to sign the oath, then reinstated years later by court action.

When called before congressional investigating committees, many began pleading their Fifth Amendment rights, not only to avoid self-incrimination but also to head off questioning about their colleagues. "Taking the Fifth" was soon interpreted in itself as evidence that the subject of the investigation was a Communist. In 1952 the mathematician Simon Heimlich, as well as the eminent classicist M.I. Finley, were fired from Rutgers University for pleading the Fifth. The Board of Trustees was undeterred by the results of a faculty investigation that had cleared the two professors.

The brilliant and eccentric Jewish mathematician Paul Erdös (1913-1996) fled his native Hungary for the United States in 1938, thereby escaping the Holocaust. However, in 1954 he was refused a U.S. re-entry visa and could not return to the country for nine years. Mathematicians Chandler Davis, Lee Lorch, Louis Weisner, and Dirk Struik were among those who found themselves blacklisted across the United States and had to leave the country to find employment.

By the mid-1960s a new era had begun. Mathematicians were among the many professors who were active in protests against the war in Vietnam and military buildup in general, especially nuclear weapons. Mathematician William Davidon founded a nationwide movement called Resist, and was on the national board of the Committee for Sane Nuclear Policy. He also worked to establish peace education projects in the local community. Professors were no longer generally punished by their universities for dissident views, and Davidon was particularly fortunate in that he taught at Haverford College, a Quaker institution that supported his political activities.

Still, it was not only the professor's own university he or she had to worry about. Standing in the academic community is also dependent on professional societies and organizations. Steven Smale (1930- ), a mathematician at Berkeley, won the Fields Medal, the mathematical equivalent of the Nobel Prize, in 1966 for work he did five years earlier. However, he was not elected to the National Academy of Sciences until 1970. Many including Smale himself attribute the delay to his active opposition to the Vietnam War.

On many university campuses symbols of the military such as ROTC programs were vociferously opposed during the Vietnam era. One such symbol was the Mathematics Research Center (MRC) at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The MRC had been established in the mid-1950s as a "think tank," where the Army could have access to the expertise of university mathematicians.

In August 1970 a small group of students loaded up a stolen van with explosives and detonated it in the loading dock of the building that housed the MRC. The ensuing blast destroyed several floors of the building, mostly laboratories that had nothing to do with the Army facility. Until the World Trade Center bombing two decades later, it was the most destructive act of sabotage in U.S. history. A physics post-doctoral student in one of the laboratories was killed. The leader of the group, Karl Armstrong, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.

Conflicts between politics and academia are by no means confined to the United States. The English mathematician Alan Turing (1912-1954) was a key figure in the early development of computers, and instrumental in British code-breaking operations during World War II. In 1952 he was put on trial for homosexuality, then considered both criminal and scandalous as well as a security risk with regard to his military work. He committed suicide in 1954, using the cyanide he had in his home for chemical experiments.

Algeria, which was once a French territory, won its independence in 1962 after seven years of bloody battles. The protracted fighting has been called "France's Vietnam" in recognition of the civil unrest it caused in France. Some French intellectuals opposed the colonial regime in Algeria and thought it was useless to continue a war that left a quarter of a million people dead. Army officers and French settlers in Algeria, on the other hand, objected to giving up the country. The rebellion resulted in the return to power of the World War II hero Charles de Gaulle, and a new French constitution establishing a strong presidency.

In Russia and previously in the U.S.S.R., anti-Semitism has contributed to the mass emigration of Jewish mathematicians and scientists. The long-time head of the major mathematical institute in Moscow, Ivan Vinogradov (1891-1983), maintained a policy of trying to push Jewish mathematicians out of the field. Between anti-Semitism affecting the Jewish mathematicians and the difficult economic conditions affecting Russia as a whole, it has been estimated that as many as 70-80% of all mathematicians in Russia have emigrated, most to Western Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, or Israel. Chinese mathematicians have also fled periodic episodes of persecution directed at intellectuals.


Political conflicts continue to trouble the academic world. In the United States many involve the degree to which, and the means by which, historical discrimination against women and minorities should be redressed. Unfortunately, incidents demonstrating that prejudice still exists are all too easy to find. Some argue that discrimination is in fact built in to the very structures of our society, and special efforts such as hiring preferences and multicultural awareness exercises are necessary to combat it. Others maintain that hiring preferences simply replace one brand of discrimination with another. Some make efforts to change or expunge language or behavior that particular groups find offensive, while others object to this "political correctness" on free speech grounds.

Issues of equity are particularly critical in mathematics because university mathematics courses such as calculus often serve as critical filters, allowing or denying admission to high-paying occupations including engineering and medicine. Since college-level calculus requires years of preparation at the elementary and secondary level, mathematics teachers are being challenged to find the best ways to work with a diverse population of children. Debates rage over whether or not to group children by ability, and whether equality of opportunity or equality of outcome is the more appropriate goal. It is not likely that politics will disappear from the field of mathematics in the foreseeable future.


Further Reading

Alker, Hayward R. Mathematics and Politics. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

Bates, Tom. Rads: The 1970 Bombing of the Army Math Center at the University of Wisconsin and its Aftermath. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Fried, Albert. McCarthyism: The Great American Red Scare. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Frieman, Grigori. It Seems I Am a Jew: A Samizdat Essay. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980.

Hentoff, Nat. Free Speech for Me but Not for Thee: How the American Right and Left Relentlessly Censor Each Other. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Porter, Theodore M. Trust in Numbers. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Reid, Constance. Julia: A Life in Mathematics. Washington DC: Mathematical Association of America, 1996.

Restivo, Sal. Mathematics in Society and History. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Pubolishers, 1992.

Schechter, Bruce. My Brain Is Open: The Mathematical Journeys of Paul Erdos. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998.

Schrecker. E.W. No Ivory Tower. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

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Politics Impinges upon Mathematics