SIAM News Blog

My Lucky Break: A Visit to the White House

By Daniel Szyld

I must admit that being SIAM Vice President at Large is a hard job.

The portfolio is broad (all activity groups, all sections, all SIAM prizes, membership, and more as detailed eloquently by my predecessor, Nick Higham). Of course, one has plenty of good moments, and a lot of satisfaction in serving the membership and the community at large.

But last month, I had an unexpected perk: a visit to the White House.

SIAM President Irene Fonseca was invited to the ceremony at the White House in which the President (yes, “the” President of the United States) would present the National Medal of Science to this year’s recipients, but was unable to attend due to prior commitments.

Hence, the honor fell on me. It was my lucky break, and I was looking forward to being there.

Alexandre Chorin receives National Medal of Science from President Obama [Photo credit: Daniel Szyld]
This year’s recipients include two SIAM members: Alexandre Chorin (University of California, Berkeley) and Thomas Kailath (Stanford University).

Let’s be frank: we serve as reviewers, in our editorial boards, or in our institutional capacities because it is good for society, and we feel a part of it. We feel rewarded when we see our profession recognized, when we see good work carried out, and new ideas flourish. On the way, we may meet amazing people, and develop lasting bonds and friendships. But not in my wildest dreams had I imagined that I would hear President Obama in person talk about science, and about the work that mathematicians and scientists collectively do.

My anticipation was immense.

On the appointed date, November 20th, after four sets of different security checks, we were at the Foyer of the East Wing where the Marine Band played Copeland and a variety of popular American songs while guests arrived.
We were surrounded by portraits of U.S. presidents from the last 50 years or so.

Thomas Kailath of Stanford University (left) and Alexandre Chorin of University of California, Berkeley pose with their National Medal of Science. [Photo credit: Daniel Szyld]

I had the opportunity to chat with a variety of attendees, from the head of the Patent Office to the Executive Director of the American Chemical Society, and meet with acquaintances in the math world, including Carlos Castillo-Chavez, a SIAM member and member of the President’s Committee that reviews applications and recommends candidates for the award.

At the appointed time, the approximately 200 attendees were ushered to their seats in the East Room to hear the President’s address.

President Obama talked about the importance of science, of science education, of the discovery process. He highlighted some of the achievements of the awardees including Chorin’s work on algorithms (it was moving to hear it from Obama himself). He also made the very valid point that we should adore our scientists the same way we worship athletes or entertainers. Who would disagree?

At the reception following the ceremony, talking to Chorin and observing his humility in the face of receiving such an honor, was a clear reminder of why we should nominate our colleagues for various kinds of prizes in the field. We help to not only recognize the individual but the profession as a whole (see also Nick Higham’s thoughts on the subject).

Let me end by sharing with you the citations of our two members:

To Alexandre J. Chorin “for the development of revolutionary methods for realistic fluid-flow simulation, now ubiquitous in the modeling and design of engines, aircraft wings, and heart valves, and in the analysis of natural flows.”

To Thomas Kailath “for transformative contributions to the fields of information and system science, for distinctive and sustained mentoring of young scholars, and for translation of scientific ideas into entrepreneurial ventures that had a significant impact on industry.”

Congratulations to both esteemed members of the SIAM community and to all awardees!

Daniel Szyld is a professor in the Department of Mathematics at Temple University and SIAM’s Vice President at Large.

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