The Men Who Saved the Computer From the Hippie Radicals

For all the hoopla these days about being “scientific”, the history of science still gets the short shrift.  We are happier discussing the philosophical advances engendered by the Enlightenment and not the people on the STEM (science, technology, math and engineering) end who actually made those advances a reality.  We’re also happier lionising those who came up with the “right” answers (and demonising those that didn’t) and not looking at the process by which “right” answers become accepted.  These and more would enrich both the discussions we have about science and ease its advance.

But history of any kind is full of inconvenient truths which challenge our conventional wisdom and make us think, and all the promoters of being “scientific” these days would rather have these truths stay in the archives.  The one I propose to remind people of today is a good example of that.

Peter Lax is one of the outstanding mathematicians of our time.  He is best known for his work on developing numerical methods of analysis, crucial in the design of just about everything these days.  These contributions include Lax-Wendroff, Lax-Friederichs, and of course the Lax Equivalence Theorem, which states that solutions which are consistent and stable are also convergent.  But outside of the field Lax had his “fifteen minutes of fame” (appropriate to use an Andy Warhol quip) in a potentially (literally) explosive situation.

Around 1100 5 May 1970 (shortly after the Kent State shootings) around 100 strikers at New York University attempted to gain access to the Atomic Energy Commission’s CDC 6500 computer.  These strikers were members of a radical group, possibly the Transcendental Students or the Weathermen.  Their first assault was unsuccessful, but Dr. Jacob Schwartz, computer science department chairman, saw the handwriting on the wall and shut the computer down.

Evidently their attempt to take control of the Courant Institute (where the computer was housed) and the computer were successful, because the afternoon of 6 May they sent a telegram to the university stating that they were holding the computer hostage and that, should the University fail to fork over US$100,000 for bail for a jailed Black Panther, they would take “appropriate action”.

The deadline for this was 1100 7 May.  Just before this the strikers left the building.  It was easy to assume that all was well, but it wasn’t.  Accompanied by both troops and University officials, Lax led them in to secure and assess the situation, but they found the computer complex filled with smoke.  The strikers had indeed prepared a bomb to damage the computer, but two assistant professors of mathematics (Emile Chi and Frederick Greenleaf) had stamped out the fuse before the Molotov cocktails went off.  This not only prevented damage to the computer but to the 1,000 or so people nearby.

It’s easy to dismiss this as ancient history.   In those times the computer was looked on by much of the radical left with suspicion, especially one in the hands of the AEC.  (Remember the opening of the Moody Blues’ On the Threshold of a Dream)? Today most people carry around as much computer power as that CDC 6500 had.  So what’s the big deal?

The fact is that the left, very much in the driver’s seat in this country these days, is largely the follow-up to the 1960’s radical agenda.  One should think of the 2008 election; the Democratic primary was a battle between a 60’s radical who was actually there (Hillary Clinton) and one who absorbed the philosophy of its leading light (Barack Obama/Bill Ayers).  Two years before the incident at New York University, Mary Hopkin recorded the Russian song “Those Were the Days” which included the following prophetic lyrics:

Oh my friend we’re older but no wiser
For in our hearts the dreams are still the same

That’s pretty much where the American left is at.  Their dreams, Luddite to the core, have never changed, and they are certainly “older but no wiser”.  They can wrap themselves in their “scientific” flag all they want, but their vision of life would take us back to a more primitive stage of living if fully implemented (assuming we survived the shock).  That’s why, for example, they would never dare consider nuclear power to reduce greenhouse gases, even though Greenpeace’s founder has seen daylight on the issue.

It’s that kind of thing–that kind of memory–that makes me profoundly sceptical of anything our left-wing does or says.  And I think it’s sad that our society has allowed them to run down the system the way they have and then say they do so in the name of science.  In the past science was a dirty word; now it’s a mantra.  Who can trust such people?

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