History of Numerical Analysis

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Philip J. Davis

Oral History (pdf)

Interviewers: Willaim Kolata and Gail Corbett

Philip J. Davis grew up in Lawrence, Massachusetts about 30 miles from Cambridge. He recalls being drawn to mathematics in high school and getting a book on interpolation and approximation from the MIT Library. After high school he went to Harvard on scholarship, where he majored in mathematics. Upon graduation from Harvard, in 1943, he became a member of the Air Force Reserves and worked on problems in aerodynamics at Langley Field in Virginia. He returned to Harvard after the War and began work on a PhD in mathematics. He wrote a thesis on entire functions and infinite interpolation under the supervision of Ralph Boas. After receiving his PhD, in 1950, he did some post-doctoral work with Stefan Bergman and Joseph Walsh at Harvard.  He joined the Numerical Analysis Section of the National Bureau of Standards, in 1954.  Davis describes the environment and people that passed through NBS at this time when it was one of the few places in the world studying numerical methods and computing. He discusses his work on the SEAC with Phillip Rabinowitz, with whom he later wrote a book on numerical integration. He also describes his work on the highly cited handbook of mathematical functions, Abramowitz and Stegun. He became a founding editor of the Journal of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. In 1959, Davis became the Head of the Numerical Analysis Section. In 1963, lead by his desire to write, he left NBS for Brown University where he established a career as a professor of applied mathematics and a writer of technical and non-technical books and articles on mathematics, numerical methods and computing.

Key words: numerical methods, aerodynamics,  SEAC, Handbook of Mathematical Functions, Journal of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, numerical integration

Funding Agency: National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), U.S. Department of Commerce

Time frame: 1940's, 1950's, 1960's, 1970's

People: Joseph Walsh, Stefan Bergman, Howard Aiken, Garrett Birkhoff, Phillip Rabinowitz, Milton Abramowitz, Irene Stegun, John Todd, Olga-Taussky Todd, Walter Gautschi, Peter Henrici, Gertrude Blanch Emilie Haynsworth, Frank Olver, David Young, Robert Barnhill

Location: Harvard University, Langley Field, National Bureau of Standards, Brown University

Citation: Philip J. Davis, Oral history interview by William Kolata and Gail Corbett, 15 April, 2004, Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, Philadelphia, PA


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