The National Academy of Sciences (United States)

Founded in 1863

The National Academy of Sciences is an organization of scientists and engineers which was established on 3 March 1863 by act of Congress. The date, of course, is quite significant, for this is right at the height of the American Civil War [4]:-
The immediate roots of the National Academy of Sciences can be traced back to the early 1850s and a group of scientists based largely in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The group enlisted the support of Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson, who helped draft a bill for the incorporation of the National Academy of Sciences. Wilson brought the bill to the Senate on February 20, 1863, where it was passed on March 3. It was passed by the House of Representatives later that day, and was signed into law by President Lincoln before the day was over. The National Academy of Sciences had officially come into being ...
For a list of founder members, and some biographical details of those with mathematical and astronomical connections, see THIS LINK.

The Academy was set up to give advice to the government on all scientific and technological matters. A report on the young Academy, written five years after its founding, states [2]:-
The National Academy of Sciences, the representative in this country of the Institute of France, and the Royal Society of Great Britain, was chartered by Congress in 1863. The number of members is limited to fifty, the names of the original incorporators being specified in the act; since that time the many vacancies which have occurred, have been filled by election. According to the constitution, no person is eligible unless he has contributed to the advancement of Science by means of original researches; hence the membership comprises those who have achieved the right to it by their own exertions; and with scarcely an exception, they are the men who would be selected by the scientific talent of the country to represent it, in all its various departments. The Academy holds two meetings annually; one, the winter session, is always held in Washington; the other, which meets in the summer, has no specified place of assembling. In 1866, it met at Northampton, last year in Hartford, and in 1868, at Northampton again. Though essentially similar to the American Association in its objects, it differs widely from it in its organization. Yet with a few exceptions the utmost cordiality exists between the members of both, more than a dozen of the leading men at the Chicago meeting being academicians, many of whom were prominent in office.
Not all reports of the early meetings of the Academy were positive, however, and a report of the 1866 meeting at Northampton, mentioned in the above quote, contains some critical comments [5]:-
This body has just held a session of five days at Northampton, Massachusetts. A large number of the most distinguished scientists of the country were in attendance, and the proceedings were of a most satisfactory character to those attending, particularly to the learned men themselves. It is unfortunate, in our opinion, for the country at large, that these gatherings do not assume a character of a more useful and popular nature. By many they are regarded as convenient occasions to ventilate speculations and theories looking to no useful result as their ultimate. Science should lead and direct art, but papers on abstractions, which, by no effort of the mind and no endeavour of the will, can be made to yield a particle of useful information, are altogether out of place in a meeting of scientific men. Whether language belongs to the field of physical science or to the domain of moral philosophy, does not appear to be a question that can in the remotest degree affect the improvement of the race. Such problems may do very well as amusements for hypercritical minds or transcendental tastes, but for all their benefit to the world at large we might as well have a treatise on the cause of lunacy in bedbugs.
It is interesting to see that the Academy's own annual report of 1866 recommended the adoption of the decimal system in the United States:-
... the Academy has indorsed the French decimal system of weights and measures as against the anomalous and puzzling lack of system now in use in this country, and recommended its adoption. Should their suggestions be followed, their influence would reach almost every person in the country almost every day, and after the change was once made, affect him most desirably.
The report of the April 1883 meeting illustrates that by this time the Academy were electing numerous leading scientists from around the world. The report begins [3]:-
The annual meeting of this body was held in Washington during the last week, with an attendance of forty members. Scientific sessions were held on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, in the large lecture-room of the National museum, and business sessions on every day of the meeting. ... Twenty-four foreign associates were elected, as follows, - Astronomers: Professor Otto von Struve of the imperial observatory at Pulkova, Russia; Professor J C Adams of Cambridge, England; Professor A Auwers, director of the observatory at Berlin; and Professor Theo. von Oppolzer, director of the observatory at Vienna. Mathematicians: Professor Arthur Cayley of the University of Cambridge, England; Professor J J Sylvester of the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore; and Professor J Bertrand of Paris. Physicists: Professor R Clausius of the University of Bonn; Baron H von Helmholtz, professor in the University of Berlin; Professor Robert Kirchhoff of the University of Berlin; Professor G G Stokes of the University of Cambridge, England; and Sir William Thomson, professor in the University of Glasgow.
The report of the 1906 meeting begins [1]:-
The meeting of the National Academy of Sciences at Boston, November 20 to 22, was notable in several respects. A majority of all the members of the Academy were present; forty-three papers were presented, so that both in attendance and number of papers all previous records were broken; and also a new and interesting feature was added in the conversazione, which means, as they use the word here, not merely a social gathering, such as the conversazione to which the British Association for the Advancement of Science has long been accustomed, but a collection of most interesting and instructive exhibits showing the latest phases of scientific research in many departments. Boston may well claim to be the best place in the world to hold a scientific meeting, and the sessions were held in the most delightful environment possible - the new group of marble palaces just opened for the Harvard Medical College.
When World War I was taking place, there was an increased demand on the Academy which, at that time, had about 150 members. In 1916 the Academy established the National Research Council which was designed to coordinate the activities of scientists and engineers in a wide variety of different situations such as universities, industry, and government. Although set up because of the war, after the World War I ended in 1918, it was seen to provide a valuable service in times of peace as well as in times of war and so the National Research Council continued to exist. In 1956 and again in 1993 the remit of the National Research Council was broadened.

The present National Academy of Sciences is governed by a 17-member Council, which includes five officers and 12 councillors elected from among the Academy membership. The only mathematician among the current Council is Ingrid Daubechies. The Academy awards a number of general prizes which are open to mathematicians and two specific mathematics prizes, one of which has been discontinued.

The NAS Award in Mathematics

Awarded for excellence of research in the mathematical sciences published within the past ten years. Established by the American Mathematical Society in Commemoration of its Centennial.

For a list of winners, see THIS LINK.

NAS Award in Applied Mathematics and Numerical Analysis

Awarded in recognition of outstanding work in applied mathematics and numerical analysis by a candidate whose research has been carried out in institutions located in North America. Established through funds provided by the IBM Corporation. Discontinued in 2005.

For a list of winners, see THIS LINK.

Visit the society website.

References (show)

  1. W H Hale, National Academy of Sciences, Scientific American 95 (23) (1906), 419.
  2. Meeting of the National Academy Of Sciences, The College Courant 3 (9) (1868), 134.
  3. National Academy of Sciences, Science 1 (12) (1883), 323-324.
  4. National Academy of Sciences website.
  5. National Academy of Sciences, Scientific American 15 (9) (1866), 131.

Last Updated September 2018