The Manhattan Project

Peter Lax's Interview

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Peter Lax's Interview

Born in Budapest, Hungary, Peter Lax fled Nazi persecution and came to America with his family at the age of 15. Drafted into the Army when he was 18, he joined other émigré scientists and mathematicians in Los Alamos to work on the Manhattan Project. In this interview, Lax discusses his work as a member of the Manhattan Project’s Special Engineer Detachment and his mathematical contributions to the challenges of neutron transport, fluid dynamics, and shockwaves. He vividly describes what life was like at Los Alamos and offers keen insights on the revolutionizing development of scientific computing and atomic energy. He also recalls the many contributions of the Hungarian mathematicians and scientists at Los Alamos, who were nicknamed “the Martians.”
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
January 8, 2016
Location of the Interview: 
New York
Transcript: 

Cindy Kelly: My name is Cindy Kelly with the Atomic Heritage Foundation. It is January 8, 2016, and I am in New York City with Peter Lax. My first question for him is to say his name and spell it.

Peter Lax: Peter Lax, spelled L-A-X.

Kelly: Great, thank you. So I would love to have you talk, just a little bit anyway, about your childhood and your parents.

Lax: My parents were doctors. My father was a prominent doctor in Hungary, and when we came to America in New York, he was an outstanding physician, and very successful. He was also a wonderful father. I remember I was around sixteen when I realized my father would do anything for me, if it was in his power.

Kelly: And how about your mother?

Lax: My mother was also a doctor. She was a very intelligent woman, interested in many things. She was good at mathematics, although she did not develop it when she realized that her brother was so much better than she. He became an electrical engineer, and I first learned mathematics from my Uncle Albert.

Kelly: Why don’t you tell us, what were your parents’ names?

Lax: Henry Lax and Klara Kornfield Lax.   

Kelly: When were you born? What’s your birthday?

Lax: May 1st, 1926.

Kelly: Where were you born?

Lax: Budapest, Hungary.

Kelly: What was Budapest like at that time?

Lax: Well, it was a city of a million. It’s a very beautiful city, it lies on the Danube – Buda. It used to be two cities, Buda and Pest. It became Budapest the same year that greater New York was put together, Brooklyn and Manhattan. Buda is an ancient city, over a thousand years old. Buda was the brother of Attila. Hungarians and Huns are supposed to be brothers. So in Hungary, Attila was a good guy. I was utterly surprised when I came to America, what he stood for here.

Kelly: Hmm, that’s very interesting. I was reading in this biography of you, by your former student, Rueben Hersh.

Lax: Ahh Rueben, yes.

Kelly: Yes, that you had, very early on, a talent for numbers.

Lax: That’s true, I was very early on interested in mathematics.

Kelly: So what did your parents do to encourage you?

Lax: Well, I was tutored by a wonderful mathematician, Rozsa Peter. She was a logician. She wrote a popular book that was, and is, quite popular in America, Playing with Infinity.

Kelly: That’s a nice title.

Lax: Yes, she told me that she picks a title and tried it out on a friend of hers, “Would you buy a book by that title?” She had a whole series of titles. She [the friend] always said no. And when it came to “Playing with Infinity,” she said yes. So that was the title.

Kelly: That’s fun. Have you heard the expression “The Hungarian miracle?”

Lax: Yes, I have.

Kelly: Tell us about that.

Lax: I once asked Marcel Riesz, who was a very distinguished Hungarian mathematician—one of the Riesz Brothers, Frigyes and Marcel Reisz—how come mathematics was so popular and prominent in Hungary?

He told me that the tradition goes back to a mathematician of the early nineteenth century, Johann Bolyai. I don’t know if you have heard of his name. He was one of the discoverers of non-Euclidean geometry, Bolyai and [Nikolai] Lobachevsky, about the same time. His father was also a mathematician who had studied in Göttingen, and was a friend of [Carl Friedrich] Gauss. His father wrote to Gauss, describing his son’s great discovery, that there is such a thing as non-Euclidean geometry. And Gauss wrote back, “Oh yes, I have thought of that too.” And this crushed young Bolyai, and he didn’t do anything afterwards.

Kelly: The 1920s and ‘30s in Hungary was particularly a time when there were a lot of brilliant mathematicians in Hungary.

Lax: Yes, yes.

Kelly: And one, a good friend of yours, John von Neumann.

Lax: Yes, yes. He was the most brilliant. When I came to America, I carried letters from Hungarian mathematicians to von Neumann, saying he should look after me. And he very soon came to visit me at my parents’ apartment and interviewed me.

Kelly: Quite a time. You stepped right up with this high school math competition?

Lax: That’s right.

Kelly: Can you tell us about that?

Lax: Well, this was a competition started by Joseph [misspoke: Roland] Eötvös, who was a physicist and a Minister of Education. It was a high school competition in his honor in mathematics and physics. I think three problems we were assigned, and I think four or five hours were at the disposal of the candidates. It was a very well-designed competition, because all of the leading mathematicians were winners, they participated in it. It’s very impressive.

Kelly: Yes, indeed. Your performance was certainly impressive because you weren’t even in high school when you took it the first time.

Lax: Well, gymnasium started earlier.

Kelly: I guess you were fourteen in 1940, when you took the first test?

Lax: That’s right.

Kelly: And then you took it again when you were fifteen. But that was the last time.

Lax: I then came to America. 

Kelly: What do you remember about that turbulent time in Hungary?

Lax: I was spared the worst of it—well, the worst of it came later. There were anti-Jewish laws. The Jews weren’t being deported or killed. There were labor camps, but they were not death camps. My father had influential friends, he was able to get people out of the camps. Anyway, we left just in time, perhaps.   

Kelly: Talk about the boat that you sailed on to the United States. Van you tell us about that?

Lax: Well, we sailed on the 5th of December ’41. Three days out, Pearl Harbor came. It was a neutral ship, so it became a belligerent ship. I remember the ship was lit up at night the first three nights. The third night, they turned the lights off. But we didn’t run into any German submarines or navy [inaudible]. It was a ten-day trip in those days.

Kelly: Were your family members very anxious? Did you keep wondering if a U-boat is going to torpedo you?

Lax: Sure.

Kelly: Tell us about your arrival in the United States. 

Lax: When we started our trip, America was a neutral country. When we arrived, America was a belligerent, and America was at war with Hungary. So we were taken to Ellis Island. But in a few days, they figured out that the Lax family was not at war with America. So they let us go.

Kelly: You father’s prominent practice with many famous well-known people also helped in your getting a sponsor.

Lax: Yes, yes. The man that gave us the affidavit to come to America was Franz Molnár, playwright, who was my father’s patient and friend in Hungary, and when we came to America here. I presume you have heard of him.

Kelly: So when you arrived in New York City, did your parents have a network of other immigrants they knew?

Lax: Yes, yes. I don’t remember all their names, but many managed to make it here, make a career.

Kelly: So where did you live?

Lax: We lived I think at first on Broadway and 73rd. I remember all my life I heard about Broadway, and then I saw it and said, “Why is it so famous?” Then I found out why. But I remember that big disappointment about Broadway.

Kelly: And then in a few years, right, 1945, you moved again?

Lax: Yes, I guess my parents moved into the Eldorado [apartment building] in, I forget, maybe 1950.

Kelly: Okay.

Lax: Then I moved in a few years later. So my parents grew up with their grandchildren and I in turn, grew up with my grandchildren.

Kelly: So you had siblings?

Lax: I have one brother. He lives near Washington. He’s a physicist. He had worked for the government, at the David Taylor Model Basin, that’s a ship design. He’s retired now, he’s a year older than I am. And in very good health.

Kelly: So when you were here you were ready to go to high school, where did you go?

Lax: Stuyvesant High School. It’s well known for science and mathematics. Actually, I knew all the mathematics they had to offer, so I didn’t take any. I took English instead, of which I was in great need. I remember we read the Return of the Native. I don’t know if you know that novel. We read it, but to this day, I don’t know what it was about. I could pass the exams. One day, I will have to read it.

Kelly: What happened next? You went to college, and where was that?

Lax: Yes, my parents, they knew the mathematician Gábor Szego. He’s Hungarian but was head of the department at Stanford, he worked at Stanford. Szego recommended that I study with [Richard] Courant, that Courant is wonderful with young people. And that was the best advice I got.

Kelly: That’s great. So tell us about Mr. Courant.

Lax: Oh, he was a very interesting man. He had built two great institutes, one in Gottingen in Germany, and then he was kicked out by Hitler because he was Jewish. He built another great institute in New York, NYU. He was a very remarkable man, although if you looked at him superficially, he didn’t look like the great administrator, he mumbled. But people who could judge people recognized that he was a man who could build something. It was his relation with people that was his great strength, and his very broad view of mathematics.

Kelly: So he became kind of your mentor, then?

Lax: Yes, yes. I remember the first time we went to see him, way back in spring of ’42, shortly after we came to America. The first thing that happened, as soon as my father got his license to practice, he became Courant’s doctor. So our two families were involved closely.

Kelly: So did you know his son Hans at that time?

Lax:  Yes, yes, Hans and I were in the Army together at Los Alamos actually, so I got to know him there.

Kelly: That’s fun. Tell us how you got from NYU to Los Alamos. How did that happen?

Lax: I’m sure that Courant must have recommended, but I was drafted. When I turned eighteen in May ’44, I was drafted into the Army. I think at that time, everyone was drafted. I think Courant must have contacted the Army, to make sure I was placed where my mathematical talent would be of use.

The Army at that time sent people who had a scientific bent to college. I was sent to Texas A&M. Undergrad down there, I was there for a semester, I’m an Aggie. But then I was picked out of there and sent to Los Alamos, the atomic bomb project, which needed mathematics. You can’t build an atomic bomb by trial and error. You have to be able to calculate every single thing.

Kelly: So let’s take up that idea. Let’s talk about the test that you had, that the Army gave you.

Lax: Yes, I did very well on it, and I think that also helped in getting me that posh assignment at Los Alamos. That plus recommendation by Courant. I don’t know any of the details. At the time I was not shipped to the Pacific, but to New Mexico, to Los Alamos.

Kelly: Right. So you were part of what the Army called the Special Engineer Detachment?

Lax: Specialized Engineering Detachment, SED.

Kelly: Where were you sent before you went to Los Alamos?

Lax: I was sent to Oak Ridge first. They conducted my clearance from there.

Kelly: What did you learn when you were there? Anything about what they were doing?

Lax: Well, since I didn’t have any clearance, I wasn’t told very much. At one point I was just told to get into a train. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad doesn’t go through Santa Fe. But the nearest station is Lamy, twelve miles away, so I got out at Lamy. There was a car waiting for me and a few other guys, and we went off into the hills.

Kelly: So did you stop in Santa Fe?

Lax: Yes. I recognized Santa Fe, because the year before, when we came to America, my father got his car and we drove around America and we visited Santa Fe, so I recognized Santa Fe. One of the oldest – the oldest American town really, 1610, something like that, founded by the Spanish. It’s a beautiful town. It’s about 40,000, maybe now 50,000. It isn’t overgrown, it kept its character. Albuquerque had grown tremendously, of course. Santa Fe is still the Santa Fe of old. Have you ever been there?

Kelly: Of course. Do you recall meeting Dorothy McKibbin?

Lax: Yes, I was checked in there.

Kelly: What can you recall of her?

Lax: Not very much, not very much. By that time, I knew that I was going to a secret place. That it would be an atomic bomb, I didn’t know. 

Kelly: Did you know that—you didn’t, not yet, okay.

Lax: No, not yet.

Kelly: So then, what was it like going up to Los Alamos?

Lax: You have been there, so you remember that the road, by the edge of the canyon. Then we arrived at clearly a government project. Once we were there, we were told essentially the basic thing: we are building an atomic bomb, that there are two bombs, one built of a special isotope of uranium, and a second bomb built of plutonium, which is an element that doesn’t exist in the world, except that they are manufacturing it. So it was like science fiction. I don’t read science fiction, I lived through it.

Kelly: What was your first project, or what do you remember about your orientation?

Lax: I worked on neutron transport problems. There were a number of problems about exploding an atomic bomb. One part of the problem was just fluid dynamics, what happens when the explosives are set off and compressed the bomb. And the second kind of bomb was neutronics, how are the neutrons generated and scattered. The material problem of compression is normally an air problem. The neutron transport problem is linear. The linear problems are easier, there are many more mathematical techniques that you can apply. So I was in my element.

Kelly: One thing the biography mentions is that you used Marchant machines at the outset.

Lax: That’s right, they didn’t have computers. Fortunately, I didn’t have to use any hand computing except for my own calculations.

Kelly: Can you describe to people who have never heard of a Marchant machine, what it was?

Lax: It was the size of a typewriter, or a little bigger. It was operated by hand, so it was a hand computer. It did the basic arithmetic, addition, multiplication, division.

Von Neumann was very deeply involved in Los Alamos. He realized that computers would be needed to carry out the calculations needed. So that was, I think, his initial impulse in developing computers. Of course, he realized that computing would be important for every highly technical project, not just atomic energy. He was the most remarkable man. I’m always utterly surprised that his name is not common, household.

It is a name that should be known to every American—in fact, every person in the world, just as the name of Einstein is. I am always utterly surprised how come he’s almost totally unknown. In fact, did you know – you did know, all right, you are an unusually well informed person. All people who had met him and interacted with him realized that his brain was more powerful than anyone’s they have ever encountered. I remember Hans Bethe even said, only half in jest, that von Neumann’s brain was a new development of the human brain. Only a slight exaggeration.

Kelly: In your work, tell us what division you were in and who was in charge of it.

Lax: Oh, I was in D Division, the Theoretical Physics Division, and my boss was physicist [Robert] Serber—I forget his first name at the moment. He was a very distinguished physicist. They recruited the leading physicists from all over the country, Serber, I think, was a professor at Berkeley.

My first project was, as I’ve said, on neutron diffusion. So I had to learn a lot of physics. It was a dream project for me and people like me. There were other young mathematicians there my age or a little older: Richard Bellman, he was a few years older; John Kemeny, I don’t know if you know his name, he became President of Dartmouth, in fact. He was a very interesting person. And many others, who made big careers afterwards. 

Kelly: You mentioned that they didn’t have a mathematics division?

Lax: That is correct.

Kelly: Yes, and why is that?

Lax: Well, I can think of two reasons. One is that they wanted mathematics to be part of the bigger effort. The other is that the leading mathematician at Los Alamos at that time, Stan Ulam, was not the administrative type. If there were a mathematics division, he would have to be the head of it, so there was no mathematics division. That’s my theory.

Kelly: So who was the head of the Theoretical Division?

Lax: Hans Bethe, a German physicist. In fact, many of the leaders of the bomb project were refugees, who were driven to America by Hitler and Mussolini. That thought was always a great comfort to me.

Kelly: Did you talk about that a lot?

Lax: Well, to anyone who would listen.

Kelly: Did you converse sometimes in German or other languages?

Lax: I think I talked Hungarian to Edward, Edward Teller.

Kelly: So what was Edward Teller like?

Lax: Oh, he was larger than life. He was just into everything.

Kelly: Was he older than you?

Lax: Oh certainly.

Kelly: So he was in the Theoretical Division as well?

Lax: That’s right.

Kelly: Do you remember what he preferred to work on?

Lax: He was interested in everything, actually. I couldn’t offhand say what his main contributions are, but there were many.

Kelly: I’ve heard he liked to play the piano.

Lax: That’s correct.

Kelly: Can you tell us about what he liked to play?

Lax: I don’t remember, but he played well.

Kelly: I would think Rachmaninoff or something very big. Your biography also notes you were friendly with Enrico Fermi?

Lax: Yes, yes, I think that was on neutron transport. I also played tennis with him.

Kelly: And you didn’t let him win?

Lax: Right. I remember I won six to four. He pointed out that the difference, two, was the square root of four, and therefore, it was a random deviation.  

Kelly: That’s terrific, oh my. I think another person that you mention is Richard Feynman? 

Lax: Yes, yes, he was perhaps the most brilliant of the people there. He was also somewhat eccentric. He played the bongo drums. But everybody admired his brilliance.

Kelly: That’s great. So tell us, when you got together, what the dynamics were among the people working on a project with mathematic experts and the physicists.

Lax: There was a great deal of pressure on us, because the bomb had to be built. Unfortunately, it was not built in time to be used in Germany. If the invasion could have been avoided, that would have saved millions of lives. But it just wasn’t ready in ’44. But it did save the invasion of Japan, and that saved millions of lives. The lives lost in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a fraction of what would have been killed in an invasion of Japan.

Kelly: You also talk about the spies at Los Alamos, talking about Dick Bellman and his deal with David Greenglass. Do you remember that?

Lax: Yes, yes, I do remember. Bellman’s wife came to Albuquerque to be near her husband, and rented an apartment. But then couldn’t afford it, so she joined the Women’s Army Corps and sublet the apartment to the wife of a G.I., whose name was Greenglass. And actually, it was in that apartment that the secrets that Greenglass transmitted were exchanged. Actually, those secrets weren’t all that important. They weren’t all that important compared to what the British spy [Klaus Fuchs] transmitted. Because Greenglass was not particularly knowledgeable, and he worked as a machinist, he was not privy to any secrets.

Kelly: But what happened once Greenglass was arrested? What repercussions did that have for Bellman?

Lax: Bellman was then working for the government in California, so he had a job that required clearance. There was a security hearing and I remember I went to testify, not only that Bellman and Greenglass weren’t friends, but that Bellman hated Greenglass, not because he was a communist but because he was used items in the apartment that he wasn’t supposed to. But I remember Bellman said, “Greenglass is the kind of guy who brings a bad reputation for Jews.” I guess that was true.

Kelly: Another person I know you have known all your life practically is Leo Szilard.

Lax: Yes, Leo Szilard was a very good friend of my uncle, Albert Kornfield. In fact, when my uncle won the Eötvös prize in mathematics, Leo Szilard was number two. Szilard won the Eötvös prize that year in physics, and my uncle was number two.

Kelly: That’s great.

Lax: I remember my mother said that her brother was just as talented as Szilard, but he didn’t have the personality, and my uncle said nonsense.

Kelly: So somebody asked you who your favorite Martian was. Tell us about this lore about the Martians.

Lax: There was these five Hungarians who were very prominent, especially in the atomic energy project, but in all the defense projects: von Neumann, [Eugene] Wigner, and Szilard. You must have the other two names.

Kelly: Let’s see, let me help you here—von Neumann, Szilard, Teller.

Lax: Teller, yeah, that’s it. So the lore or the joke was that they were Martians. They realized and they couldn’t pass themselves off as Americans and therefore, they pretended to be Hungarians.   

Kelly: That’s great. So did you get caught in that too? Did people begin to refer to you as a Martian, too?

Lax: Well, I was a junior Martian.

Kelly: A junior Martian, that’s great. Were there many other Hungarians at Los Alamos?

Lax: John Kemeny was there, and there must have been others too. But he became my close friend.

Kelly: One thing you talked about in the book is about the fear that the Germans might be ahead. 

Lax: Yes, yes.

Kelly: Talk about that.

Lax: German physics was outstanding. Of course, many German physicists fled the Nazis to America. As it turned out, the German atomic bomb project wasn’t going anywhere, it was in a very primitive stage. Its leader was [Werner] Heisenberg, one of the leading German physicists. When the Americans occupied Germany, they arrested him along with other physicists. He was told after the atomic bomb was dropped and it was made public. He didn’t believe it, he said a newscaster made a mistake. But after a short while, after a physicist explained to him the principles, he understood.

Kelly: Do you believe that story?

Lax: Yes, yes, absolutely. I heard it from someone who was there.

Kelly: Did you know Heisenberg?

Lax:    No.

Kelly: I guess he spent many summers anyway at the University of Michigan.

Lax: Yes. Hungarians love to speak Hungarian. There was beautiful literature in Hungarian, poetry, novels. Alas, it is totally unknown but to Hungarians.

Kelly: Well the language is very unique.

Lax: It’s very unique. It’s kind of a miracle that it survived for about 1,100 years. There were many migrations. The Hungarians came from Asia. It was just many migrations, the most famous being the Huns. But there were also others, the Avars, the Pechenegs, Ugors. They all disappeared. But the Hungarians somehow stayed on for 1,100 years and prospered. Maybe it was a larger group, I don’t know.

Kelly: Another Hungarian miracle.

Lax: It’s another Hungarian miracle.

Lax: The Hungarian language was actually the language of the peasants. The upper classes spoke German or French, or also Latin. Latin, it was not classical Roman, but kind of a kitchen Latin, but it was a language of conversation because Hungarians didn’t want to speak German. The Germans were the oppressors.

But Hungarian literature is of relatively recent origin because the language, being the language of peasants, was not fit for sophisticated literature. So in the end of the eighteen century, a group of writers got together and reformed the language in the sense of creating words for modern concepts. They just invented them. They invented 10,000 new words, of which 5,000 are today part of the language. They were words for, as I’ve said, modern concepts. Then there was a vocabulary for modern literature. And within a very short time—twenty, thirty years—there were wonderful poets and writers and novelists. A rich Hungarian literature developed in a very short time. Unfortunately, only Hungarians know how rich. 

Kelly: That’s very interesting. But going back to Los Alamos, what other things can you talk about? What was it like to be in the SED and live in a barrack?

Lax: As I said, it was like living science fiction. I didn’t mind the barracks. We had very little Army discipline. There was an inspection every Saturday, but there was nothing they could do to us. I remember we had to arrange our footlocker, and we were told where to put things. Smoking material had to be here. I remember a friend of mine prepared a box labeled “Opium for smoking.” Nobody noticed it.

Kelly: Oh, dear. Did you ever do calisthenics in the morning?

Lax: Oh sure, sure. We did. We had to go running. I could do all that, I was in very good physical shape. I never fell out on a march.

Kelly: What did you do for recreation?

Lax: Hiking, hiking into the mountains, wonderful mountains. Back there the Sangre de Cristo, and the hills behind Los Alamos and the Sangres across.

Kelly: So the elevation didn’t bother you? 

Lax: No. It was quite high, 7,300 feet, which is something.

Kelly: Maybe you want to talk about John Kemeny.

Lax: Oh, he was a brilliant guy. His background was similar to mine. He came to America maybe a few years before I did, also from Hungary, and he was very early on interested in mathematics. His interest was in logic, actually. He was a student at Princeton. Princeton already had a logician and wouldn’t engage another logician, so he went to Dartmouth and made – was it Dartmouth?

Kelly: Yes.

Lax: And built up the mathematics department. He was a dynamo of energy.

Kelly: There’s so many then. Another person maybe you could talk about is Nick Metropolis.

Lax: Yes. He built the first computer at Los Alamos. He collaborated closely with von Neumann, and he was a very important person in that development.

Kelly: Tell us about what happened after the war was ended. How long did you stay there, and what happened next?

Lax: They released me from the Army, on the condition that I stay another six months. That was a good deal, so I spent six months there as a civilian, and then I went back to college. I had less than two years of college credits, so I had to get my college degree, which I did. I didn’t take any mathematics, because I knew all of the college mathematics they had to offer. I took graduate courses. I got out of the Army in ’46 and graduated college in ’48. Got my PhD I think in the next two years, maybe.

Kelly: Where did you study?

Lax: NYU, although I spent summers at Stanford University. In fact, when I graduated from college I had credit from four different universities: NYU, Stanford, University of New Mexico, and Texas A&M.

Kelly: And you were able to cobble that together? Nice.

Lax: I cobbled it together.

Kelly: Yeah, that’s great. And then you went to Los Alamos for a year, is that right?

Lax: That’s right, I did. They were working on the hydrogen bomb project. It was very interesting. I loved Los Alamos, I liked that landscape. By that time, I had a family.

Kelly: It’s gorgeous. Now after a year, what did you do next?

Lax: I’m sorry?

Kelly: You were at Los Alamos for a year and then—

Lax: Yes, I went back to Los Alamos after the war. I worked on fluid dynamics. The compression of the bomb, at such pressures all solids become fluids, so it becomes fluid dynamic. When I came back to NYU, I continued to work on fluid dynamics problems and especially on problems of shockwaves, which is when a very great force is applied, it create shockwaves.

That was a very important topic at Los Alamos, and then actually, in every bomb project. It was a very interesting problem. Von Neumann had very original ideas and I developed them further. It was interesting work. 

Kelly: The one thing I’d love to have you talk about is how important computing became to science.

Lax: Oh absolutely, absolutely. But I already said how important it was for the atomic bomb project, because you can’t develop a bomb by trial and error. But it was equally important in aerodynamics. You can’t build an airplane by trial and error, you have to be able to calculate it beforehand.

Kelly: After the war, you actually returned to Los Alamos every summer?

Lax: That’s right. I loved that landscape and I was interested in the work. At that time, Los Alamos was the leader in computing. Von Neumann was there, that was a great attraction. People today have a hard time to imagine how brilliant von Neumann was. If you talked to him, after three words, he took over. He understood in an instant what the problem was and had ideas. Everybody wanted to talk to him.

Kelly: Interesting. You have had a brilliant career, we haven’t even touched on that. Maybe you want to talk about what you did for the next seventy years, briefly.

Lax: I had a rather very versatile career in mathematics. I didn’t stick to one problem, I worked on many problems. I always maintained an interest on the numerical calculations. Since computing was new, that subject was very new and therefore fun to work in. That was a large part of my career, but it wasn’t the only thing.

Kelly: You were certainly well recognized, and that includes the award, the Abel Prize.

Lax: Yes.

Kelly: In 2005.

Lax: Yes. Abel was a Norwegian mathematician who died at the age of twenty-six, but during that very short life, he did very great things.

Kelly: So you were the third recipient of this prize?

Lax: Yes.

Kelly: How did that feel? Were you surprised?

Lax: Yes, I was surprised. I was very pleased.

Kelly: Nice. You just recently got a write-up in the New York Times.

Lax: Yes, I was very surprised. It was not the anniversary of anything in particular, so I don’t quite know why they ran that article. Jim [Lax] had a very close friend at the New York Times some years ago, Jill Abramson, she was editor for a while, but she’s no longer there. So I don’t know why the Times wrote that article.

Kelly: At any rate, do you have anything that I haven’t asked about your Manhattan Project experience or reflections on the birth of the atomic age—

Lax: I think it’s very remarkable and very happy that atomic energy—when atomic energy and atomic weapons were discovered, everybody was frightened to death that the world would blow itself up. But it hasn’t. It has been able to control effectively atomic energy. That shows a certain maturity on the part of the world. Maybe it brought the world together.

That’s a wonderful story. When he [Kemeny] was made President [of Dartmouth], he was told he has to give up teaching mathematics, and he said, “I understand. But would the trustees mind if I played golf twice a week?”

“Oh no not at all, that would be wonderful.”

He said, “Actually, I don’t play golf, but I would like to teach a math course.” So that was [inaudible], to play golf.

Kelly: That’s a great story.

Jim Lax: And the other thing you said recently is, you described mathematics before computers and after computers. 

Lax: Yes, yes, it was a big change in mathematics, both in mathematics itself, because computing suddenly made new demands on mathematics. But it also made mathematics very important in the world. Before that a mathematician was someone who lived in another world, but suddenly became very much part of the real world.

Kelly: That’s now central.

Lax: Something I did not envision when I was thirteen, and first fell in love with mathematics.

Kelly: So what do you tell young people that want to be mathematicians today? 

Lax: I tell them that if they have the aptitude for it, it’s the most wonderful life.