Friday, May 27, 2016

Restoring Spring Flora at Veblen House

The first iris opened last week, a vestige of Elizabeth Veblen's english garden. Photos from the 1950s, recently found at the Institute for Advanced Study archives, show that the garden completely encircled the house in a broad oval complete with split rail fence, as if the house were enclosed in a horse corral. The photos, selected from a large box of slides by Friends of Herrontown Woods volunteer Victoria Floor, and then digitized by IAS archives staff, show the Veblen House grounds from many angles, and will greatly facilitate restoration of the gardens.

Farther down the slope, the pawpaws planted by volunteers during a new years weekend planting party are beginning to grow, protected from deer browse.

FOHW board members Kurt and Sally Tazelaar cleared this area of multiflora rose, allowing native sedges to rebound. The fallen tree is a black locust, possibly planted long ago to create a grove from which their rot-resistant wood could be harvested for fenceposts.

Also growing in this field are green-fringed orchids, many of which we're protecting from the deer and mowing crews.

Whether it's the buildings or the land the Veblens left behind, the aim is to appreciate and nurture what remains.

For more on this spring's flora along the trails in Herrontown Woods, follow this link.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Ramanujan, Veblen, and Chandrasekhar: After seeing "The Man Who Knew Infinity"

A movie showing in town, "The Man Who Knew Infinity" (trailer here), tells the story of a brilliant but little known Indian mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan. Growing up in India, in poverty and with little formal training, he produced a prodigious body of original, unconventional work that ultimately came to light through his persistent efforts to reach out to British mathematicians. Of those he sent excerpts of his work to, only G.H. Hardy of Trinity College, Cambridge, responded, in 1913. A collaboration ensued, with Ramanujan moving to England.

The movie begins with a quote from Bertrand Russell, who is one of the characters: “Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty—"

There are multiple tensions in the movie: atheism and belief in God, the skepticism of the British mathematicians, racial and institutional prejudice, Hardy's attempts to steer Ramanujan's intuitive explorations of the infinite towards the tedious, earthbound necessity of proofs, the long-distance love for his wife left behind in India, his battles with disease.

Ramanujan was a contemporary of Oswald Veblen, born seven years later, in 1887. Both can be found in descriptions of the "Greatest Mathematicians born between 1870 and 1939 A.D." Though it's not clear if the two ever met, there are several connections between Veblen and the British mathematicians portrayed in the movie. One can find, in the google book "Ramanujan: Letters and Commentary" and elsewhere, that G.H. Hardy exchanged places with Veblen during the year 1928-29, with Hardy coming to Princeton and Veblen spending a year at Cambridge. Though Hardy was not enamored of the study of ballistics, both Veblen and Hardy's close colleague, John Littlewood, joined the military during WW I, in Britain and the U.S., respectively, to contribute their mathematical expertise to improving ballistics. An interesting article describes Veblen's leading role in bringing a group of mathematicians together at Aberdeen Proving Grounds to work on ballistics. As important as any contribution made to ballistics, the gathering of mathematical minds at Aberdeen "created a community out of a generation of mathematicians" that influenced many of their careers. (Another potentially interesting article encountered is Placing World War I in the History of Mathematics.)

The physical link between mathematics and the human and natural gardens at Veblen House and Herrontown Woods is echoed in IAS faculty member Freeman Dyson's metaphorical praise at the 1987 centenary conference celebrating Ramanujan's contributions to mathematics. From the NY Times:
"Such mathematics has helped drive one of the major new conceptions of theoretical physics, superstring theory, as the physicist Freeman Dyson told a Ramanujan conference last month. 'As pure mathematics, it is as beautiful as any of the other flowers that grew from seeds that ripened in Ramanujan's garden.'"

In a personal aside, Ramanujan's origins reminded me of another Indian, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize in physics. He was a colleague of my father's at Yerkes Observatory (the two furthest left in the photo). I remember reading with some surprise, having always framed discrimination in terms of black and white, that Chandra also was the victim of racial prejudice during his long career in England and the U.S.. A look into his biography shows some parallels with Ramanujan. Chandra also studied in Madras, two decades after Ramanujan, and followed the same path to Trinity College in Cambridge, with similarly dramatic results, both in extraordinary contributions and cultural tensions. A 2005 article in the Guardian, Battle for the Black Hole, describes the mistreatment Chandrasekhar is said to have endured, resulting in lasting trauma and a 40 year delay in the recognition he so deserved for his discoveries. Third from the right in the photo appears to be Gerard Kuiper, whose research supported Chandra's theories as far back as 1935. The article says Chandrasekhar's discovery was finally vindicated with the discovery of an x-ray source, Cygnus X-1, in 1972. I remember my father being very involved in studying x-ray sources at that time, specifically Sco X-1, organizing simultaneous observations around the world. Kuiper--fun fact here--was Carl Sagan's doctoral advisor at U. of Chicago.

Additional reading shows that Chandrasekhar was greatly inspired by the career of Ramanujan, and is responsible for having later tracked down the only adequate photo of the great mathematician, taken for the passport prior to his return to India from Great Britain. It's the photo above and at the end of the movie.

No clear connection between Chandra and Veblen has yet emerged, though they must have encountered each other at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, where they both served during WW II along with Von Neumann and others. Both may have seen the possibilities for their own careers through their illustrious uncles, C.V. Raman and Thorstein Veblen. Raman was awarded the Nobel prize in physics. 

Update: In the original post here, I told a story of my parents taking me to dinner at the Chandrasekhars', and how I had been so overwhelmed by the smell of spices spilling out the doorway that I couldn't even enter, and spent the evening outside on the porch, working on an Around the World trick with my yoyo, while the more worldly experience of Indian cooking was going on upstairs. My older siblings tell me that the host was an Indian grad student at Yerkes, not Chandra, who with his wife lived not in town but in a house overlooking Lake Geneva.

My siblings offered some surely more accurate Chandra stories of their own. One offers insight into the sort of departmental politics that can arise out of having so many high-achieving scholars packed into a small community like Yerkes Observatory. Due to a misunderstanding created by another colleague, the department chair was keeping my father's salary low and refusing to promote him to full professor. Suddenly, my father started getting raises. Turned out that Chandra had persuaded the department chair that my father deserved better. 

Chandra dressed impeccably in British formal attire, and his wife, Lalitha (which my siblings pronounce like "Lolita"), wore traditional saris that must have seemed extraordinary in small town Wisconsin.

Another story, which can be obliquely tied to Veblen's ballistics work, involved a game I would play on the observatory grounds, in which I would see how few strokes it took to hit a golf ball all the way around the massive building. It was a challenge to send the ball flying over or inbetween trees, and there were a few times when imperfect execution sent the ball caroming off of the building's tan brick walls. Incredibly, no windows ever got broken in the process. One day, according to my brother, Chandra was passing by on his way home and stopped to talk to me, not to question my dubious pursuits but to explain the purpose of the dimples on the golf ball. Maybe his study of the flow of electromagnetic particles offered insight into how air flows around a golf ball.

In a third story, connected somewhat to Veblen's ballistics and early computer work, Chandra is said to have used top performing female students at my small-town high school in Williams Bay as an early form of "computer", to "calculate immensely difficult mathematical equations entirely by long hand". Based on that experience, he later recommended that female calculators be used to speed up aspects of the Manhattan Project. My sister remembers a Yerkes staff member, Irene Hansen, doing calculations with the aid of a small typewriter-like machine. By brother says it was a Monroe calculator, perhaps like this one, which he says helped him learn multiplication tables. He'd race the machine, and could sometimes beat it as it went "caCHUNKa, caCHUNKa, caCHUNKa". 

George Dyson, in his book Turing's Cathedral (p. 159), describes how scientists' frustration with the limitations of the Monroe calculator led in part to von Neumann's work to develop a high speed computer at the Institute for Advanced Study beginning in the mid-40s. The project was received skeptically by all at IAS but Veblen.  

Irene Hansen, whose various roles at Yerkes included assistant, secretary, and "computer", later married astronomer Donald Osterbrock, who studied with Chandrasekhar and had a post-doc at Princeton. Osterbrock and another Yerkes astronomer, Bill Morgan, contributed to the discovery of the Milky Way galaxy's spiral structure. I like this quote from Osterbrock's obit: "Morgan's methods were sometimes criticized as being "qualitative," and one critic even accused him of being 'a celestial botanist.'" How many of us get to grow up with a celestial botanist as a neighbor?

Interesting to contemplate how a love of nature led to discovering the Veblen House, long forgotten in a Princeton preserve, which led to learning of Veblen's legacy, which led via a movie about an Indian mathematician back to the world I inhabited as a child in Wisconsin.

In the movie, Ramunujan is played by Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons portrays Hardy; Toby Jones plays Hardy’s colleague John Littlewood; Jeremy Northam shows up a few times as Bertrand Russell.

A bit of an afterthought: Note the similarity in appearance between Jeremy Irons in his portrayal of G.H. Hardy

and Veblen late in life. I'm sure Veblen would be majorly flattered by the comparison.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Research Uncovers a Description of the Veblen House from 1939

It's long been known that what we now call the Veblen House was a prefab originally brought to Princeton in pieces by Manhattan realtor and avid outdoorsman J.P. Whiton-Stuart. Competing stories placed the house's origins in Morristown or New York. I had been exploring various possibilities, including Bartow on the Sound, where Stuart's wife, Mary Marshall Ogden, grew up, and Tuxedo Park, where they may have resided just before moving to Princeton.

Thanks to some stellar research at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. by Friends of Herrontown Woods volunteer Victoria Floor, we now know that the Veblen House was in fact brought here from Morristown, where the itinerant Whiton-Stuarts lived from 1916-21. Victoria was able to find correspondence between Whiton-Stuart and Oswald Veblen from 1939. Stuart clearly wants to sell the house to Veblen, saying that otherwise he would have to spend $1000 to move it to another site.

In this letter to Veblen, along with mentioning the Morristown origin, Jesse writes that "water is my good luck", presumably meaning he has a good source of water on the site, and how his work to build the house and improve the site was "a terror but a pleasure to do". We're finding our work to rehab the site, some 80 years later, is also a pleasure, so that fits.

In another letter, Jesse describes the house itself, as "put together like a watch or motor, and can be unbolted anywhere, added to, etc. Every stick was oiled twice before being fit. It has two air spaces, most houses have none. It is papered and blanketed three times. Most houses have one, so it is as cool in summer as it is warm and draftless in winter. It is heated with direct and indirect hot air, at a ridiculously low cost of fuel because of insulation. It has ventilators for summer. All lumber, trim and floors were picked from old, seasoned wood, hard to be had today."

All of this fits with our observations, as the wood has proven remarkably resistant to decay. The double walls have also contributed to preserving the structure. Various openings between rooms and floors comprise an elaborate system for ventilation and passive heat transfer.

And in another letter, he says the house "cost over $20,000 to build", which in the early 1930s sounds like a substantial amount.

Thanks to Victoria for doing this research in D.C.! Next step is to determine what origin and any prior existence the house had in Morristown. One theory is that Whiton-Stuart had it custom built in Morristown by people he knew there.

Having never done historical research before, I'm surprised at how engaging it is, like putting together a puzzle, or slowly bringing an image into focus, or gathering the pages of a novel that were scattered to the wind.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Restoring an English Garden at Veblen House

The closer one looks, the more treasures one finds on the grounds of Veblen House. The sugar maples were blooming ever so subtly on our March 13 workday.

More showy were the snowdrops, likely planted by Elizabeth Veblen and her gardening friends, as part of an English garden that transitioned into the wilder woodland beyond in Herrontown Woods. Now that the grounds are cleared of invasive shrubs, it's clear that the snowdrops follow a berm that forms one of two ovals around the house. The ovals were probably made to divert surface runoff away from the house, but the shape also is reminiscent of a corral for horses. Some historical research is showing that the original owner, Jesse Whiton-Stuart, was a skilled horseman.

Since the diabase boulders of the Princeton Ridge contribute to the beauty of this wild garden, we spent some time cleaning them of vines and leaves.

Here's a 1950s photo of a portion of the grounds, taken when the Veblens were still alive. You can see that Elizabeth, born in England, loved daffodils. Thanks to Bob Wells for this and many other photos that will help us to recreate a semblance of the garden's past glory.

Clusters of daffodils remain, and one of our tasks is to make sure the leaves linger long enough into the summer for the roots to have enough energy to bloom next year.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Informal Tour and Workday at Veblen House This Sunday, 2-5pm

(Also posted at
Stop by the Veblen House this Sunday, March 13, 2-5pm, where we'll be having a work day and can give you a tour of the grounds. The tour consists of telling stories about the many features of the grounds, and the remarkable people who lived there. Some projects are putting protective cages around the pawpaw seedlings in the pawpaw patch, clearing sticks and brush from ditches, and digging shallow diversions to divert runoff from the trails.

We'll provide cider and cookies, and I'll have "live stakes" of native elderberry, buttonbush and silky dogwood for anyone wishing to take one home to grow in the yard. Kids welcome.

For those wishing to "dig in", bring a shovel along if you have one handy.

Directions: Reach the Veblen House by entering the gravel driveway across from 443 Herrontown Road in Princeton (look for Rotary sign wrapped around a tree), or by taking the trail from the Herrontown Woods parking lot up to the farm cottage (cedar shingle siding) and taking a right through the fence. Veblen House appears as a small white square on this map, north of the parking lot.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Theatrical Portrait of Life at Alan Turing's Bletchley Park

On March 10 and 20 in Trenton, one of my teachers in the acting world, June Ballinger, will be performing a monologue she wrote about her mother, who worked at Bletchley Park supporting the work of mathematician Alan Turing to decode the Nazi's Enigma machine. Lest we think that mathematicians and other intellectuals aren't central to a nation's destiny,  here's a testimonial to the impact the work of Turing and others at Britain's decoding center had on the war:
"Turing played a pivotal role in cracking intercepted coded messages that enabled the Allies to defeat the Nazis in many crucial engagements, including the Battle of the Atlantic; it has been estimated that this work shortened the war in Europe by as many as two to four years.[6]"
Turing wrote his thesis during two years in Princeton in the 1930s, under the direction of Alonzo Church, a former student of Oswald Veblen's. 

Though made famous by the movie The Imitation Game, Turing's decoding work was kept secret long after WWII. June's mother and other employees were sworn to secrecy by Winston Churchill. 

June interviewed her mother, wishing to learn about this exciting and pivotal time in her life. She has used the interviews as material for an extended monologue. June is usually wrapped up in her role as Artistic Director of Passage Theatre in Trenton, so this is a great and infrequent opportunity to witness her extraordinary talent in a role close to her heart.

Here's a description from the Passage Theatre website

"An 80-year-old former British code breaker attends a Remembrance Day service in England. She looks back on her life and the secrets about her work and identity that she has held for over 50 years. Will she ever be truly known by her children? How will she be remembered? 
Written and performed by June Ballinger and inspired by her mother’s work at Bletchley Park during WWII. Directed by Janice Goldberg."

June Ballinger's Remembrance is part of a series of monologues being presented through March 20th. If you've never been to Passage Theatre, it's in a beautiful historic building easily accessed from Route 1. (directions)

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Spring Cleanup With Scouts at Veblen House

Spring cleanup came early to the Veblen House grounds this year, thanks to twelve local cubscouts and boyscouts, plus parents. They cleared away fallen branches, large and small, while learning about the history of the house and checking out the edible native species we've reintroduced to the site: pawpaws, butternuts, hazelnuts, and American chestnuts.

The workday was organized by Adrienne Rubin and facilitated by a beautiful Sunday afternoon. The Friends of Herrontown Woods is grateful for the scouts' efforts, and the opportunity to work with kids in this setting where nature and culture come together.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

1932-The Whiton-Stuarts Move to Princeton

Why the Whiton-Stuarts, soon-to-be builders of Veblen House, moved to Princeton in the 1930s is still a mystery, but a few possible leads can be found in this snippet of Princeton's 1932 phone book, which shows them first living on Alexander Rd. Yes, if you catch the history bug, even a phone book can become a satisfying read, all the more so because they used to list occupation, like "prof", "student", "mgr restr", and, in Whiton-Stuart's case, "real est".

We know that prior to his and his wife's moving to Princeton, Jesse Whiton-Stuart had lived 58 years in a peripatetic style. Born in Jersey City, educated in Manhattan by a tutor, he dropped out of Harvard after a year to travel the world in the 1890s, had shown particular interest in mathematics, become wealthy selling real estate in New York before heading to Arizona to run a cattle ranch, showed up in Morristown, NJ, living with his wife and two kids in 1920, and was an accomplished marksman and horseman. We know that he shared with Oswald Veblen a love of mathematics, buildings and the outdoors. We also know that Princeton was home to some prominent Stuarts, though no direct familial relationship has yet to be found.

One motivation to move to Princeton in the 1930's was suggested to me in a chance conversation at a party I attended recently in a house on Alexander Rd, next to McCarter Theater and also, coincidentally, next door to where Oswald Veblen first took up residence in Princeton in 1905. Universities might have been a refuge of sorts during the Great Depression, less affected by the economy's nosedive in 1929.

In Princton in 1932, Whiton-Stuart would have found a mathematics department coming into its golden age, with Veblen as chair. Fine Hall, largely designed by Veblen and later described by Sylvia Nassar in "A Beautiful Mind" as "the most luxurious building ever devoted to mathematics", had just opened up. Jesse might well have stopped by for tea--a tradition begun by the Veblens to facilitate interaction among faculty and students.

That year, the Institute for Advanced Study would open up, with Veblen as its first faculty member and Einstein its second, housed for the first few years at Fine Hall. Early concepts for computers were beginning to hatch. Among the "pillars of computer science" at Princeton in 1930 were Oswald Veblen and his former student, Alonzo Church, who in turn would oversee the brilliant dissertation of Alan Turing from 1936 to 1938. Turing became widely known in the 2015 movie, The Imitation Game, for his work in WWII to decode the Nazi's Enigma machine. It's hard to imagine that Whiton-Stuart was not drawn to Princeton at least in part by the mathematical mecca Veblen had done so much to foster.

But this post was intending to point out how much history is packed into that one snippet of the Princeton phone book that Jesse and his wife Mary joined in 1932.

First is Donald C Stuart, professor of dramatic arts at Princeton, and director of the Triangle Club when McCarter Theater opened in 1930, with budding actor Jimmy Stewart performing in the Club's first ever musical comedy, The Tiger Smiles. We can also speculate that he is the father of Donald C Stuart, Jr who founded Princeton's Town Topics, and whose wife Lucile developed a strong interest in native plants.

Duane R. Stuart was in the Latin department, came to Princeton in 1905, the same year as Veblen, and lived next door to him on Battle Road. Interesting that a Stuart lived next door to Veblen. Whether he's related to Whiton-Stuart's step-father is something to explore.

There are some interesting stories about Earnest C. Stuekelberg, whose residence in 1932, at 106 Alexander, is one of several recently sacrificed for the new arts and transportation center now being built on campus. A gifted Swiss mathematician who resided only a couple years in Princeton, he is described as having made many discoveries for which others were given credit. Wikipedia states that his work went unrecognized until the 1990s, and refers to "several Nobel Prizes awarded for work that Stueckelberg contributed to, without recognition". Even his first name was replaced by a stand-in. In case there's any importance to not being Earnest, his first name was actually Ernst. The Swiss, at least, celebrated his 100th birthday.

Others looked up, from that page of the phone book:

In 1930, Richard Swinnerton was an instructor in physical education, then apparently became director by 1932. A bit of gleaning from the internet: "The Richard Swinnerton Trophy is awarded annually to that freshman member of the Princeton tennis squad who through play, sportsmanship and influence has contributed most to the sport. Established by former Princeton tennis players in memory of Richard Swinnerton who coached many generations of Princetonians."

Wilbur W Swingle was a biology professor who, in this article, is described as having discovered that frogs cannot survive in "heavy water".

Lewis Hastings Sarett, a brilliant chemist

William Nelson Stultz

William J Stratton, Stony Brook Riding Club (any reference to horses can be relevant, given Whiton-Stuart interest in them.)

A chauffer for Coventry Farm--the beautiful farm protected from development, just west of Mountain Lakes in Princeton.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Our Trailwork Lauded in Recent Letter

Thanks to Sophie Glovier, whose letter in the Mailbox of Town Topics mentions the efforts of our Friends of Herrontown Woods to reclaim, mark and maintain public trails through 200 acres of open space in Herrontown Woods and adjoining Autumn Hill Reservation. These two Princeton nature preserves had become largely abandoned after storms and invasive shrubs blocked trails. Our group of volunteers has experienced the exhilaration and the sweat of reopening trails through this marvelous, boulder-strewn landscape, most of which was donated in 1957 by Oswald and Elizabeth Veblen. Leading the trail reclamation work has been Kurt Tazelaar, who views the preserve as his gymnasium, a place to get a workout while improving trails and shifting the ecological balance from invasive shrubs to natives.

Though town and county staff maintain parking lots, all of Princeton's nature trails remain accessible only through the largely volunteer work of nonprofits. Elsewhere in Princeton, Friends of Princeton Open Space has for decades maintained trails in and around Mountain Lakes, and the DR Greenway also does some maintenance of local greenspace. Sophie Glovier has been involved with both of those organizations over the years, and her research of local trails turned into the popular book, Walk the Trails In and Around Princeton.

There's also an informal Friends group keeping Gulick Park's trails clear. For those wishing to get out and about after comparative winter confinement, many of Princeton's trails are a bit muddy this time of year, though as you can see in the photo, along the Princeton ridge, there's lots of opportunities for rock-hopping.

Friday, February 12, 2016

A Map of Herrontown Woods

If you've stopped by Herrontown Woods over the past year, you've probably seen this beautiful pamphlet with a detailed map of all the trails. It was created by Friends of Herrontown Woods board member, Jon Johnson. We periodically add more at the kiosk in the parking lot off of Snowden Lane, but this digital copy should help those with cell phones. You can click on the pages below to enlarge them, or get a printable copy at this link.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Adventures of J.P. Whiton-Stuart, First Owner of the Veblen House

One of the pleasures of adopting a historic house is learning about the people who once lived there. Oswald Veblen's extraordinary career continues to inspire preservation of the house, but there are other fascinating characters whose lives our sleuthing is slowly bringing to light. Though named after the Veblens, the house was originally brought to Princeton as a prefab by Jesse Paulmier Whiton-Stuart and his wife, Mary Marshall Ogden. Such special names, and the ever-expanding archive of old books and newspapers on the internet, make it relatively easy to find all sorts of tidbits about their lives. Jesse, for instance, went to Harvard, but stayed only a year. Why? His report back to the college in 1908 (even non-graduates were expected to send reports every five years on their doings) suggests that sitting in a classroom was not his style:
"After leaving Harvard I travelled all over the Continent and through the Far East, nearly always with a tutor or professor, and am one of the very few having crossed over- land through Persia, visiting missionaries and hermits who had not seen a traveller for twenty-five years. Between these travels I attended Williams College, Massachusetts, and Cambridge University, England, principally for the courses in mathematics. I also hunted as an avocation throughout the West, and won many important events pigeon shooting around New York. I then became associated with Douglas Robinson in real estate, and am now in business for myself as a specialist in selling large private residences."
His marksmanship and interest in mathematics echo similar qualities in Oswald Veblen. And Veblen showed a similar outdoor adventurous streak--George Dyson mentions Veblen having traveled down the Iowa and Mississippi Rivers a la Huckleberry Finn. These three qualities shared by Whiton-Stuart and Veblen lead naturally to speculation that Whiton-Stuart's arrival in Princeton in the 1930s, to settle next to Veblen's land and cottage, was not mere coincidence. And Whiton-Stuart's pigeon shooting--not sure if they were real or clay back then--offers a chance to explore the transition from guns to binoculars for birding.

What was it like for Whiton-Stuart in his early 20s to be crossing over-land through Persia? The first clue comes in an 1898 book, "Around the World on Wheels", about riding a bicycle around the world. It popped up on a google search, due to Whiton-Stuart making a brief appearance as a good Samaritan in Chapter 23, on page 120. The title echoes Jules Verne's "Around the World in 80 Days", which was published twenty five years prior in what Wikipedia's account describes as the dawn of global tourism.

To get a flavor of the book, which is beautifully rendered online in highly readable form, a portion of the table of contents, and the passage mentioning our itinerant Whiton-Stuart, are shown below.

Click on the documents to enlarge them for reading. The book looks like a fun read.

Friday, January 8, 2016

A PawPaw Patch is Born

There was a lot of great energy and spirit out at Veblen House this past Sunday, Jan. 3, when we threw essentially our first social event on the house grounds: a PawPaw Patch Planting Party. Hot cider and cookies were on a table in the field next to the house, and a fine spot had been cleared for the pawpaw planting.

The event was sponsored by our Friends of Herrontown Woods nonprofit, of course, and friend Stan who provided the pawpaw seedlings, but also in part by El Nino, an ocean current dedicated to weirding our weather from its home base in the Pacific Ocean. The weather turned out to be more normal than expected, which is to say it was winteresqe, but still sunny and pleasant.

Our event offered a chance for everyone to get acquainted with this special place at the northeast edge of town, on the edge of a new year.

The hardy pawpaws took a new year's dive into the cold ground as we sipped the warm cider.

This one got special treatment, a circle of sticks--another circle in the many-circled land around the Veblen House. Thanks to all who joined us for this grounds-warming party!

Thursday, December 31, 2015

This Sunday, Jan. 3, 2pm: Grounds Tour and Pawpaw Patch Planting Party

To usher in the new year, our Friends of Herrontown Woods group is hosting a gathering this coming Sunday, Jan. 3, to show off the recent transformation of the Veblen House landscape. Should be a beautiful day, but cool, so dress warmly, and we'll have something warm to drink. In addition to touring the grounds, you can participate in a planting of pawpaws to symbolize new beginnings, not to mention future harvests of delicious tropical-tasting fruits.

Directions: Reach the Veblen House by entering the gravel driveway across from 443 Herrontown Road in Princeton (look for Rotary sign wrapped around a tree), or by taking the trail from the Herrontown Woods parking lot up to the farm cottage (cedar shingle siding) and taking a right through the fence. Veblen House appears as a small white square on this map, north of the parking lot.

Just a few months ago, the grounds around the house were choked with invasive shrubs and wisteria vines. That was before the Tazelaars brought loppers and saws to bear, clearing large areas and opening up pleasing vistas of what I call "the many circled land". Veblen House is located at the edge of the Princeton Ridge. To the east is farmland; up the hill to the west is boulder heaven--boulders born not of glaciers but of ancient upwellings of molten rock. Straight rock walls extend through the woods, marking the edge of what once were 19th century pastures. But at Veblen House, the boulders were put to both functional and aesthetic use. The photo above shows the horse run, where horses could be exercised.

In this photo, a portion of the oval of stones circling the Veblen House can be seen, and an old fencepost in the foreground, likely made out of decay-resistant black locust, is one of several that delineate what was a second and larger oval around the house.

The stone fish pond in the foreground makes a half circle that faces the oval of stones around the house.

There's another, smaller circle of stones that forms a funerary some distance from the house, where the ashes of the Veblens may well have been placed.

And the wells, of course, are all circles dotting the landscape. In the photo is one of three relatively shallow wells that form a line extending from the house, as if they were cleanout points for a long pipe meant to carry wastewater far from the house. One of the wells we discovered just last week, it having been completely hidden under the growth of invasives. Four other wells on the property were for drinking water, bringing the total to seven.

This newly opened area, which receives runoff and seepage from the higher ground up near the house, appears perfect for a paw paw patch. Just one week ago, it was dominated by monster specimens of thorny multiflora rose that, with some major energy input from Kurt and one of his brothers, have been relocated to a brush pile.

The pawpaws were donated by a friend, Stan, who has a knack for growing pawpaws, persimmons, sunchokes, and all sorts of interesting native species that hover on the periphery of our diets, just as Oswald and Elizabeth Veblen's remarkable legacy hovers on the edge of people's awareness.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Fall Flowers Bring December Showers

If Thorstein Veblen, Oswald's famed economist uncle, could coin the term "conspicuous consumption", then why not give it a go at the Veblen House? "Fall flowers bring December showers". There. It may lack the trochaic meter of "April showers bring May flowers", but it wasn't much "toil and trouble" to come up with. And clearly it's true. I mean, this flower was blooming in front of the Veblen House on November 28th, and we had rain the first week of December. Clear correlation.

Or maybe it's that, as winter forgets how to be winter, trees lose their bearings. El Nino, like the wizard Prospero shipwrecked on an island far off in the Pacific, has been playing tricks. There was a memorable conversation between two young men on the train headed into NY a few months ago, in which one described to the other El Nino's impact on our weather in New Jersey. "I don't know if I buy that," said the other, not ready to embrace the concept that the world is so intimately interconnected. Sometimes it's these not so clear correlations that turn out to be true.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Topologist Ian Agol, Veblen Prize recipient, wins Breakthrough Prize

A winner of the 2013 Oswald Veblen Prize in Geometry, Ian Agol, has also just won a Breakthrough Prize of $3 million, for what the prize foundation terms "spectacular contributions to low-dimensional topology and geometric group theory". In a NY Times article, Mark Zuckerberg, one of the founders of the Breakthrough Prizes, described them this way: “The Breakthrough Prize honors achievements in science and math so we can encourage more pioneering research and celebrate scientists as the heroes they truly are.”

Though Agol is based at the University of California, Berkeley, he has a one year position at the Institute for Advanced Study, which includes leading a workshop on 3-dimensional manifolds the week of Dec. 7.

It's interesting to trace the lineage of mathematicians via the Mathematics Genealogy Project. Working back from Ian Agol, for instance, the string of advisors are Michael Hartley Freedman, William Browder, John Coleman Moore, George William Whitehead, Jr., Norman Earl Steenrod, and then Solomon Lefschetz, who succeeded Oswald Veblen as Fine Professor in Princeton's Department of Mathematics after Veblen moved to the IAS in 1933. Another bio of Lefschetz, who was trained in Europe, can be found here.

Agol's thoughts upon receiving the Veblen Prize can be found on pp. 14-16 at this link.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Celebrating the Lives of John and Alicia Nash

There was an extraordinary day of celebrating the life and work of mathematician John Nash and his wife Alicia at Princeton University on Saturday, October 24.

Coming five months after he and his wife were killed in a car accident while returning to Princeton from Newark Airport, the series of talks about his work culminated in a moving talk by Silvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind. It's a powerful story of Nash's descent into schizophrenia. That he had Alicia to return to was mentioned as a powerful force in what for victims of the disease was a rare recovery, allowing them to share many good years before they were taken from us.

The talks were followed by a remembrance service at Princeton University Chapel. There's a writeup with photos on the Princeton University website. Though I didn't know John Nash, I found the service very moving--the beauty of the music, the testimonials, the splendor of the chapel. Jim Manganaro, who was a good friend of the Nashes and has expressed ongoing interest and support for the Veblen House project over the years, was one of the speakers. Noting John Nash's precise use of the english language, he told the story of Alicia saying at the dinner table that an offering of pie was too big for her, since she was on a diet. John pointed out that the piece of pie was not too big for Alicia, but too big for a diet.

A Veblen connection--a chapter of A Beautiful Mind begins with a description of "May" Veblen, Oswald's wife--is written about in a previous post.

Update, Nov. 10: I heard from Joseph Kohn, who MC'd Silvia Nasar's presentation, that the various talks will be making it on to the internet at some point.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Clearing (Around the) House

Friends of Herrontown Woods board members Kurt and Sally Tazelaar have been doing lately what few of us imagined possible. The stone features that once graced the grounds around the Veblen House, long obscured by thick, intimidating stands of invasive winged euonymus, privet, honeysuckle, wisteria, and multiflora rose, are now becoming visible again. Boulders in the garden near the house, the large round "horse run", the 75' by 30' footprint where a barn once stood, a rock wall left over from a farming era--all can be seen again as the pleasing vistas of this wooded site are opened up.

One can begin to see what drew the Veblens to this location, and the pleasure Einstein and others took in visiting.

I recently attended a committee meeting in Princeton where people expressed pessimism about ever winning the battle against invasive species that crowd our nature preserves with inedible foliage. Because wildlife depend on native plant species for food, the dominance of non-native invasives effectively shrinks the functional acreage of habitat Princeton worked so hard to preserve.

Kurt's and Sally's work supports a more optimistic view. Kurt views the Herrontown Woods preserve not as passive open space, but as a gym where he gets his very active daily workout, wielding a saw and a pair of loppers to cut down invasives. With this sort of thinking, he sees habitat restoration not as an occasional workday, but as a way of life that keeps him fit and rewarded with a deepening sense of accomplishment. The invasive plants grow 24/7, so an effort to counter them must emulate that persistence.

It is this sort of example, that feeds optimism and empowerment in an era where problems seem to grow beyond our capacities to respond, that is the most rewarding aspect of our work to restore the Veblen House and grounds.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Herrontown's Farming Tradition Continues

Adjacent to the Veblen House property in Herrontown Woods, a daily ritual is taking place. John Powell is giving this year's two head of cattle (easier just to call them cows) a feeding of grain. Former manager of Jac Weller's farm (now Smoyer Park), John continues the tradition of farming in a part of Princeton that once was home to many small subsistence farms, as the rock walls that thread through Herrontown Woods attest.

While the cattle are distracted with food, John goes after several pesky horseflies on the cattle's backs.

Neighbors and passersby love the sight of the cattle in the pasture. In addition to working with the county to acquire and preserve the Veblen cottage nearby, which is an 1870s farm cottage, the Friends of Herrontown Woods hope to see John's farm preserved, and have offered to help with management of this mini-farm in coming years, so that one small part of the Herrontown neighborhood's farming tradition can continue far into the future.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Weyl Fermion Discovery--The Veblen Connection

When I saw the headline "After 85-year search, massless particle with promise for next-generation electronics discovered" among the Princeton University website's top stories, my response was a bit cynical. So many headlines tease us with important discoveries that could transform society, only to reveal deeper into the text that the discovery won't find practical uses for decades, if ever.

The text reporting this discovery, however, got more interesting as it went along. Turns out the massless particle was first proposed "by the mathematician and physicist Hermann Weyl in 1929." If you look at the Robert Nolan biography of Oswald Veblen, you find that Veblen "was largely responsible for selecting the other members of the original faculty (of the Institute for Advanced Study): James W. Alexander II, Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, and Hermann Weyl."

The Princeton University article goes on to say:
"Weyl fermions have been long sought by scientists because they have been regarded as possible building blocks of other subatomic particles, and are even more basic than the ubiquitous, negative-charge carrying electron (when electrons are moving inside a crystal). Their basic nature means that Weyl fermions could provide a much more stable and efficient transport of particles than electrons, which are the principle particle behind modern electronics. Unlike electrons, Weyl fermions are massless and possess a high degree of mobility; the particle's spin is both in the same direction as its motion — which is known as being right-handed — and in the opposite direction in which it moves, or left-handed."
Maybe someone's imagination, massless and possessing a high degree of mobility, will find useful applications for the Wehl fermion much sooner than later, in which case we will need to invent a dance in which we all spin both directions at the same time.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Veblen's Mathematical Geneology

I was talking to a classical pianist the other day, and told her I'm three generations removed from Bela Bartok. She replied that she's 6th generation Beethoven. My link to Bela Bartok stems from having studied piano with Michele Cooker, who studied with Gyorgy Sandor, who was a student of Bartok's. Though Michele taught me piano rather than composition, maybe some quality of Bartok rubbed off, because I went on to write many short piano pieces for my students, in the spirit of Bartok's Mikrokosmos.

Similar lineages are traced in the world of mathematics. Jon Johnson, who's on the board of Friends of Herrontown Woods, sent me this link documenting Oswald Veblen's mathematical descendants. By this count, Veblen had 16 students and 10,126 descendants. The second number will steadily increase as descendants advise each new generation of mathematicians. The majority of Veblen's mathematical descendants can be attributed to three of his students, Alonzo Church, R.L. Moore, and John Whitehead. That Veblen played the advisor role for just 16 students must owe in part to his having left Princeton University to join the Institute for Advanced Study, which did not have the traditional advisory relationship between faculty and graduate students.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Taking a Step Towards Reuse

One central theme of the Veblen House project is reuse. This can be seen most obviously in the form of saving and repurposing a remarkable historic house, but also plays out in small everyday ways, like the salvaging and repurposing of this climbing wall. Part of a backyard play set, it was put out for the trash in my neighborhood. As it happens, there's a muddy stretch of trail between the Veblen House and cottage that could use a boardwalk, and this looked to be perfect for the purpose.

With the handholds removed, it was rolled into place on a wheelbarrow similarly rescued from the curb. Another piece was added, meaning that about 100 pounds less "stuff" got hauled to the landfill, and we no longer have to dodge the mud. It also saved the time and materials that a newly constructed boardwalk would have required.

Imagination and re-visioning stand between an economy's phenomenal productivity and a bulging landfill. Resourcefulness means fewer resources are needed to achieve the same result. The climbing board spent years offering a challenge to kids. Now it offers kids and adults easy passage over a former challenge. What more can we ask, really, from a boardwalk or from ourselves, than to change the world one step at a time?