This scientist is not neutral

Chandler Davis retires from a career that has spanned science-fiction writing, mathematics, and peace activism

By Jean Smith | 1993-01-01 12:00:00

Chandler Davis is a man of peace: level-headed and uncompromising, patient and ardent, tolerant and unyielding-and gentle. Last June, on the occasion of his retirement, people came from far and wide to honor him at a one-day conference at the University of Toronto.

The conference focussed on three aspects of Davis's life: his mathematics, his sceinece-fiction writing, and his social activism. Holly Cole sang a one of his poems, set to music composed and played by his son, Aaron.

Chandler's wife, Natalie Zemon Davis, is a distinguished historian presently working at Princeton. I have used a picture of their whole family to accompany this article because Chandler's family is such a great source of enjoyment for him. When asked if he has had to sacrifice some glory in his career so that his wife could do scholarly work, his response was: "My failure to prove theorems I wish I had proved was due to my not being smart enough; it was not due to changing diapers or ironing or baby-sitting; I did all those things as part of my life, and a good part of my life." A striking feature of the programme was his listing as a member of the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM). They invited him to join because he has done so much to help women mathematicians gain their proper recognition within the academic community. His outrage at the exclusion of women mathematicians was extended to black mathematicians when he realized they had to hold separate meetings because they were not granted the full privileges of membership in the American Mathematical Society (AMS). Appealing to the Society's own laws, he helped them to to take their rightful place.

Chandler was born and raised in the United States, and took his degrees at various American universities. Along with others, he organized protests against the Korean War and against legal lynching in the South, and worked towards getting civilian international control of atomic energy. He was a member of the Council of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions (ASP): bitter-enders who kept the left visible on campus. In 1948 he had helped organize a meeting which publicly deplored the detention incommunicado, without charges, of a mathematician way up in Canada.

In the 1950s, as a young professor, he ran afoul of the red-baiting campaigns in the United States. He and people like him supported each other and exchanged ideas and tactics for dealing with the situation. They saw the jobs of their teachers and older friends and relatives threatened, or snatched away: Chandler's economist father was one of them. In 1954, at the University of Michigan, Chandler himself was first suspended with pay and then dismissed without severence pay. An ad-hoc committee set up by the University of Michigan questioned his colleagues in secret to find out how "left" he was. He says of that experience: "At that stage, as a 27-year old instructor, I wasn't up to telling my august colleagues they should be ashamed of themselves, though intellectually I saw that was called for." At a hearing in 1954 the House Committe on un-American Activities (HUAC) tried to brow-beat him into admitting that in 1952 he had written the pamphlet "Operation Mind," which was critical of HUAC. He had in fact helped with its production but it was his wife who had written it. The committee also wanted him to admit that he was a member of the Communist Party, but although he had been a member since 1953, he always refused to deny or defend that in the hearings because that would be a betrayal of many people whom he had worked with and admired.

Unable to obtain a regular teaching position while waiting for his trial, and then his appeals to be finished, he worked at various things to support himself and his family, while friends and colleagues raised money for his court case. He says "this was a broadening time. The experience of marginality is good for the soul and better for the intellect"-though of course he wouldn't wish it on anyone again, anywhere. In 1960 he was jailed because of his refusal to answer questions put to him by the committee. In 1962 Chandler moved to Canada to take a teaching job in the mathematics department of the University of Toronto, where he has worked ever since. He says he likes it here. Both the academic community and the anti-war movement have benefitted from his presence.

Along with Nancy Pocock and Dan Heap, Chandler organized a "Stop War Goods to the United States" Campaign during the winter and spring of 1967. They arranged demonstrations at Hawker Sidley and Litton where components for weapons were being produced for the U.S. Dan's involvement helped to allay trade unionists' fears of of job loss.

In the mid-sixties, as the Vietnam war escalated, 400 mathematicians, including Chandler, published paid ads in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society that said "We urge you to regard yourselves as responsible for the uses to which your talents are put. We believe this responsibility forbids putting mathematics in the service of this cruel war." These ads appeared next to ads offering job opportunities in war work. (See Peace, Aug. 1987) Then came the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Early in 1986, a group of mathematicians began work organizing resistance to the militarization of support for research, especially if it was connected to the SDI. The group included several current and past officers of the American Mathematical Society (AMS). They developed a referendum calling on members of the AMS to have nothing to do with SDI and to strive to increase the component of non-military funding for mathematicians. The referendum passed in 1988 with a large majority. As this article is going to press Chandler, at the request from the AMS, is helping to write a code of ethics for mathematicians. Science for Peace, of which he is a board member, has an on-going project of encouraging codes of ethics for scientists. So perhaps there is room for optimism. (See No Ivory Tower, E. Schrecker, Oxford, 1986.)

He is very concerned about the need for scientists to take responsibility for their work, realizing that the initial scientific work is less complex than the eventual social consequences of its use. He writes about this in a booklet, entitled Science for Good or Ill published as part of the Waging Peace Series of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. He also stresses the need for serious consideration of the socalled "messy sciences" such as ecology and gives as an example the work of Rachel Carson who, without complete experimental data, foretold the catastrophic consequences of using chemicals in agriculture.

In the science-fiction world he is known as Chan Davis and has many published works to his credit. They include, "The Nightmare," which deals with the threat nuclear war. "Last Year's Grave Undug" is a story about political witch-hunting. "Adrift on the Policy Level" is about scientific advice getting shuffled aside in a corporation. Call him at the university if you have trouble locating them in your local library.

The work to make a better world goes on. For your past and continuing contributions towards the realization of that goal, Chandler, we thank you.

Jean Smith is office manager of Peace Magazine.

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1993

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1993, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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