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Norm Levitt: An Obituary

News & Comment

Jay M. Pasachoff

Volume 34.1, January / February 2010

Norman Levitt, a professor of mathematics at Rutgers and, for the last couple of decades, a major figure in combating pseudoscience and pseudoknowledge, died at the age of 66 on October 24, after a few years' bout with a heart ailment. He was born in the Bronx, attended P.S. 114 and the Bronx High School of Science, graduating in 1960, and then Harvard College, graduating in 3 years in 1963, while still 19 years old (two months before his 20th birthday).

In the early 1990s, he asked Paul Gross to work with him on combating pseudoscience, and their resulting book, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science, appeared in 1994. He later wrote many articles relating to standards of science, what he curmudgeonly thought of as charlatans pushing pseudoscience and metascience, and public knowledge and understanding of science. His later books included The Flight from Science and Reason (1997) and Prometheus Bedeviled: Science and the Contradictions of Contemporary Culture. He played a major role in working with the NYU physicist Alan Sokal in Sokal's presentation of a gobbledygook paper to the post-modern humanities journal Social Text, which published it in spite of what Levitt and many others thought were flags that indicated that it was a joke. The result was and is widely interpreted, especially in scientific circles, as a black mark on postmodernism.

I first met Norm Levitt when I was in third grade, in around 1951,and he a year behind, so I am honored to have known him for well over fifty years. We lived in the West Bronx during its Golden Age; there have recently been celebrations and museum exhibits on the occasion of the 100th birthday of the Grand Concourse. Norm's mother, Molly, was best friend and Mahjong buddy of the mother of the new boy in my building (and on my floor), Ronnie Saiet, and Norm's parents and Ronnie's socialized. The Levitts lived just a couple of blocks away, on Walton Avenue south of 167th Street, so Norm spent a lot of time with Ronnie, Ira Blumenthal, and me, playing the role of D'Artagnan to our Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. (Wikipedia, which I consulted to checking the Musketeers' names' spelling, informs me that the story of d'Artagnan was continued by Dumas in two more novels, Twenty Years After and The Vicomte de Bragelonne, the set becoming known as the d'Artagnan Romances. So d'Artagnan was the main character, a suitable analogy for this memorial comment.)

In the 1950's in the Bronx, we boys were free and on our own a lot, much less programmed than today's young people. Those of us intellectually inclined were lucky to have the Bronx High School of Science in our lives, where our mathematical abilities especially were fostered. Of course, Harvard wasn't bad in mathematics, either.

One of my high-school influences was Martin Gardner's book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, published by Dover in 1957, when Norm and I were in high school. In 2003, I started teaching a seminar at Williams College on the subject, and one of the dozen weekly topics was the so-called Sokal Hoax. I was delighted to find that Norm was an expert on the topic, and I invited him to lead that week's seminar. Naomi and I have had the pleasure of his visits to us on three such occasions, including one at which we also had the pleasure of the company of Renée. And my students on the three occasions certainly benefited from the readings he supplied and the discussions that he led.

I am honored to have been a friend of Norman Levitt, and I am delighted that our friendship was professionally renewed during the last few years. Naomi and I have sent our deepest condolences to his widow, Renée; to their children, Steven and Oradee, Heather and Jason; and their grandchildren. They have asked that any memorial contributions be made to the National Center for Science Education, 420 40th Street, Suite 2, Oakland, CA 94609.

A memorial service was held in Manhattan on October 31, with a secular rabbi presiding and, by particular request, no mention of god; Norm had been cremated. The half dozen speakers aside from me and from a cousin were mathematicians, and the importance of his research mathematical work was stressed. We learned of his early promise, and of the wall of his report cards that his mother had proudly displayed in their Bronx apartment. We learned of his wide range of knowledge of interests, including visiting art galleries in New York and knowing about battles in the Civil War. We learned about his special love for his grandchildren.

The death of Norm Levitt is a loss for his family, his friends, the world of mathematics, and all those interested in the standards of science.

Jay M. Pasachoff

Jay Pasachoff is a new consulting editor of Skeptical Inquirer, is Field Memorial Professor of Astronomy at Williams College and, during 2008-2009, visiting associate at the California Institute of Technology.