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A Curious Coincidence of Applied Math and National History

By James Crowley

It was 1971. A group of anti-war activists had broken into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania (a few miles outside Philadelphia). Their intent was to obtain documents demonstrating efforts of the FBI to spy on politically active organizations. They left with just about every document in the office, and they sent the stolen documents to various newspapers, including The New York Times. The members of the group were never identified.

On January 7, 2014—more than 40 years after the break-in–the story appeared on the front page of The New York Times (“Burglars Who Took On F.B.I. Cast Off Shadows”) after several members of the group, previously unknown to the public, had come forward with their story.

What does this have to do with SIAM or the applied math community? Quite a bit, as it turns out. A key member of the group—the mastermind, according to the Times article—was a prominent member of the applied math community: William Davidon. A professor of mathematics at Haverford College, Davidon was known to our community for his research in optimization, in particular for the Davidon-Fletcher-Powell method. Indeed, Davidon’s prominence was such that in 1991, when SIAM published the first issue of its new optimization journal, the lead paper was “Variable Metric Method for Minimization,” by William C. Davidon (SIOPT, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 1-17).

In 1990, shortly before the launch of SIOPT, SIAM News went to Haverford to interview Davidon. The resulting story in SIAM News (July 1990) began, “One of the most cited documents in the optimization literature is about to be published for the first time.” The article went on to point out that the paper had existed previously only as a 1959 internal report of Argonne National Lab, which was widely cited but never made its way into the open literature. Davidon was happy to discuss the work and its reception with SIAM News, although, in fact, he had long moved on to other research interests.

This curious coincidence of applied mathematics and national history has come to light only after the death of Davidon in 2013. According to the Times article, “he had planned to speak publicly about his role in the break-in.”

James Crowley is the executive director of SIAM.