Herbert Gelernter and American Science

A great American scientist: 1929–2015.

Last week I wrote about being toured around Taiwan; during the trip, several Taiwanese government officials asked me how I happened to have become interested in tiny democratic Taiwan’s struggle for legitimacy in the shadow of big, brutal Communist China. The fact is, being actively anti-Communist is a family tradition.

My father, who is (among other things) a computer scientist, was one of the scientists who worked on Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative missile shield, which helped drive the USSR out of business. He was one of the SDI scientists whose work worked; that work, so far as I can tell, is still employed in American missile defense.

His grandfather — my great-grandfather — was born in a part of Russia that later became part of Ukraine and will soon be part of Russia again. During the Depression, when rumors of a Soviet socialist paradise were becoming popular in America’s poor immigrant neighborhoods, he decided to travel back to the USSR and have a look at the situation himself. After some discreet but persistent questioning of man-on-the-street Soviet citizens, the proto-KGB secret police began to harass him, and he returned to the U.S., where he helped spread the word about free markets and freedom. He went on to be a chaplain at West Point (one of West Point’s first rabbis).

My grandfather — my father’s father — was one of the first mathematicians invited to the USSR during the pre-détente of the Sixties. He was subsequently banned from the Eastern Bloc after he joined a group of scientists petitioning for the release of the refuseniks from Russia and Natan Sharansky from prison.

He — my grandfather, Herbert Gelernter — was a major figure in 20th-century science, and a patriot. His parents had fled from the pogroms of Eastern Europe and had come through Ellis Island with absolutely nothing. A generation later, their son, my grandfather, received a trio of undergraduate degrees, in mathematics, physics, and chemistry, and offers of fellowships in theoretical physics from Harvard, Yale, and MIT. After deciding not to pursue a career as a violinist — he was a superb violinist — he accepted the offer from MIT. A year or so later, he moved to the University of Rochester so that he could work with the eminent physicist Robert Marshak.

At the time, Marshak was developing theories to explain the behavior of subatomic particles; my grandfather’s doctoral dissertation disproved one of those theories, through simulations of physical experiments using digital computers (a technique which, of course, is the basis for all modern research in physics and cosmology). His work on simulation thrust him into computing, as one of the very first computer scientists and one of the first researchers in digital-computational physics. His digital physics simulations were at the cutting edge of a new field.

IBM began to sponsor his research, and after he got his Ph.D., IBM Research offered him a job. At IBM, he narrowly missed out on writing the first ever artificial-intelligence software — his “geometry machine” was the third ever AI program, and far more sophisticated than its predecessors. The first two AI systems dealt with simple formal logic; the “geometry machine” program proved geometric theorems. My grandfather’s work on AI is foundational, and included the invention of a recursive data structure that would become the basis for LISP, one of the two programming languages invented in the Fifties that are still used; it underlies huge swaths of modern software.

Next came a spell spent on particle physics at IBM and at the European CERN lab near Geneva (the lab that recently confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson particle). For his work analyzing the collision and decay paths of nuclear particles, he developed a machine to track the particle paths through so-called “spark chambers” and “bubble chambers” — it used the emissions of excited particles to trigger a pixel grid of receptors and create a digital image of the particles’ movement. This was, in essence, the first digital camera. The first patent for a digital camera wouldn’t be issued until roughly a decade later.

After CERN, he returned to IBM to work on computational techniques for digital models of people’s hearts, which inspired him to develop an idea that became part of the basis for magnetic resonance imaging and MRI machines. From IBM he went to Yale to help set up its particle accelerator, and then after a brief flirtation with Xerox — which tried to recruit him as head of research — he accepted an offer from SUNY Stony Brook so he and my grandmother could be near their aging parents in Brooklyn. At Stony Brook, he was a charter member of what became, for a time, one of the country’s major computer-science departments.

At Stony Brook Computer Science, he turned his attention to chemistry, and to the design of one of the most sophisticated AI programs that has ever been built, called “SYNCHEM”: it discovers synthesis routes for complex organic molecules.

SYNCHEM was the last major project of his career.

Herbert Gelernter made sure all his children and grandchildren understood the blessing that had been conferred on them by being born in the United States.

Herbert Gelernter’s career was quintessentially American. Nowhere else in the world could a family have gone, in one generation, from ransacked Galician ghettos to working simultaneously in every major scientific field. After his retirement, he remained as deeply interested in the United States as he was in science, reading his newspaper of choice cover to cover every day, and The Weekly Standard every week; every night he watched the news — for the last 20 years, Special Report with Brit Hume or Bret Baier.

He made sure all his children and grandchildren understood the blessing that had been conferred on them by being born in the United States. Certainly, he’s one of the reasons I read and write for NRO.

I wanted to write this for NRO because my grandfather, a singularly humble man, is not well known outside of the many textbooks his work graces. He died last week. I don’t expect ever to meet a comparably remarkable man. At least — as Jews say, instead of “Rest in peace” — his memory will be a blessing.

(Tell his story to your children and grandchildren: Maybe when they go to college they’ll spend their time learning something instead of becoming anti-Western hippie idiots. He’d enjoy that.)

Josh Gelernter — Josh Gelernter is a weekly columnist for NRO, and a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

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