By Gail Corbett
The late William Davidon, longtime professor of mathematics and physics at Haverford College, may be known to readers of SIAM News for his part in the DFP (Davidon–Fletcher–Powell) family of quasi-Newton methods. Those familiar with the SIAM Journal on Optimization might remember him as the author of the first paper––actually a reprint of his never-before-published 1959 Argonne report––in the first (February 1991) issue of the journal.
SIOPT founding editor John Dennis, explaining the choice of Davidon’s then 30-year-old paper to launch the new journal, pointed out to SIAM News that “the line of research begun by Davidon dominated research in nonlinear programming for more than 20 years.”
The story of the unhurried, indirect path to publication of the paper was recounted to SIAM News (July 1990) by the relaxed and unassuming Davidon, along with some remarkable side stories. The focus of those stories was Davidon’s anti-Vietnam war activities, which included his spearheading of a 1971 break-in and burglary of the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania. What motivated the burglary was Davidon’s hope of obtaining and making public documents that would reveal attempts of the FBI to suppress dissent through surveillance and harassment of protesters. Downplayed by Davidon in the interview with SIAM News, the break-in and ensuing events are the subject of the recently published Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI (by Betty Medsger, Vintage, 596 pages, $16.95, paper).
A review of the book in The New York Review of Books (October 23, 2014) concludes that the disclosure of the stolen material (originally in The Washington Post, where Medsger was a reporter), “helped to put a stop to many great abuses.” In the end, the group did “a public service.”
Gail Corbett is the managing editor of SIAM News.