Editorial 11/03

Will the most brilliant American shake hands with America's showcase moron?

The National Medal of Science

November 2,2003

Among this year's recipients for the National Medal of Science one finds the mathematical physicist Ed Witten. If there is any one living today who deserves the mantle of the modern Einstein, it is surely he. Although he was not the lone inventor of String Theory he has carried it further than anyone could have imagined. In addition he has made many notable contributions to mathematics at the level of the work he's done in theoretical physics.

Two weeks ago I send an E-mail message to Dr. Witten's Institute for Advanced Study account, suggesting that he might consider declining to attend the award ceremony, slated for November 6th in Washington D.C. At the same time I sent a copy of this message to 40 friends, acquaintances and colleagues, with the proposal that they reinforce my message to Dr. Witten with one of their own. To date I've received exactly 3 replies, all extremely cryptic. Mark Kon, in the mathematics department at Boston University wrote that "This would be a very bad idea". I then asked him if he could tell me why, given that such gestures are routinely done by celebrated individuals in the arts and sciences. Evidently he didn't consider my question worthy of reply. No doubt most of the others have deemed themselves too superior to consider my suggestion worthy of an answer.

A chemist, Stu Novak at Wesleyan, also thought it was a bad idea, arguing that one should make a distinction between the governent giving the award, from the people who happen to be in charge at that particular moment. I did not agree, but at least we had a satisfactory discussion.

Lou Kauffman, the knot theorist, wrote that this was a decision for Ed to make. We are both in agreement in that regard. I replied all the same, that if Ed Witten does agree to go to Washington , accept the award, and shake Bush's hand, ( or some equivalent representative thereof), it will take him 3 weeks of hard rubbing to wash of the slime. To which Lou replied, "Yes!"

The association of institutions or governments with the conspirators who run them is not a new idea. At the height of World War I an infamous document, signed by all but one of Germany's top scientists, glorified the German cause and ridiculed the notion that any atrocities had been committed by the Reich. The lone dissenter was Albert Einstein. Einstein then himself wrote and circulated a petition calling upon the German government to stop the war immediately and begin negotiations for peace. His one signer was a biologist/ medical doctor, another radical pacifist who ultimately escaped to Denmark by hijacking an airplane.

Sometime in the 30's, Arturo Toscanini refused to perform any more concerts in Germany. Quote : "One does not cooperate with evil". For the same reasons, Pablo Casals refused for many years to give concerts in the US because of its ties with the fascist regime of Franco.

In June of 1965, Robert Lowell rejected, (via a letter to the New York Times) an invitation by the Johnson White House to be honored at the "White House Festival of the Arts". He specifically stated that this should be considered as a protest gesture against the on-going Vietnamese War. (Reading about Lowell's action has persuaded me to try once again to read some of his stuff-there may be something in it after all!)

Jean-Paul Sartre rejected the Nobel Prize. Samuel Beckett accepted it on the condition that he not be required to attend the ceremonies (this is what I suggested to Witten). Alexandre Grothendieck rejected both the ceremony and the prize money for the Crafoord Prize. We all know that AG has his moments when he's out in left field. Question: when he rejected the prize, was it his madness or his genius that was speaking? I don't know, but incline to the latter.

It has not escaped my attention that, when it was a question of persuading Albert Einstein to write the letter to FDR that launched the age of nuclear warfare, there were at least 3 very distinguished scientists, Szilard, Wigner and Teller, and one famous economist, Alexander Sachs, who argued with him for months (July 1939 to March 1940 when the letter was sent) to get him to send it.

Yet, when I suggested to 40 colleagues that the modern Einstein be persuaded to think about merely declining to attend a ceremony at which a prize is awarded, the entire community showed itself to be squeamish at best, and exceeding haughty at worst.

Go to Sequel:Circus in the East Room

Return to