Sunday, February 17, 2019

Astronomer John Irwin: A Familial and Veblen Connection


One of my favorite astronomers from my youth turns out to have had a connection to Oswald Veblen. John Irwin was a colleague of my father's who loved kids and hiking as much as he loved astronomy. He'd stop by Yerkes Observatory for American Astronomical Society meetings, and my older sister remembers him getting down on his hands and knees in the living room of the director's house and giving her a horse ride. As a kid growing up around astronomers, you remember those few that would come down to your level, and John was one of those who would literally do that.

I remember him from family visits to Chile in the mid-1960s, where he was living with his wife on top of the next mountain over from Tololo, where my father would have observing runs. (Note: In reading recently a bio of the well-known popularizer of astronomy, Neil deGrasse Tyson, I noticed that he did his graduate observing at Tololo.) John was doing the site surveying work that lays the groundwork, so to speak, for siting new observatories in the northern Chilean desert--one of the best places in the world to do astronomy. One of the mountains he explored, Las Campanas, would two decades later be the site for the Magellan telescopes--my father's last design project.

One thing observatories in the desert need is a water supply, and one day John took my brother and me on a hike down the mountain to check the flow in the creek from which Tololo drew its water. We were hiking down a steep slope when I lost my footing and did what must have looked like a wild improvisatory dance as I slid down the mountainside, trying to break my momentum. When I finally came to a stop, unscathed, he congratulated me on my footwork. That sort of compliment means a lot to a kid, and it's always stayed with me.

He told us about a mountain that had many false summits, that is, the climber would look up and think the summit close at hand, only to discover that the mountain continues up and there is much hiking still to do. A climber, tight against the mountainside with limited view of what's above, can be fooled multiple times before finally reaching the top. That story has come to resonate with life and work in general. John loved mountains so much that he celebrated his 85th birthday by climbing his favorite mountain, Mount Whitney, in the Sierra Nevadas of California. His father's family was from Philadelphia, and claimed Ben Franklin as an ancestor.

Along with his Veblenesque combining of intellect and a love of the outdoors, John has a familial connection to Princeton and its math department. He was born in Princeton in 1909, while his mathematician father, Frank Irwin, was serving an instructorship from 1908-11, alongside Veblen, who had arrived three years earlier. Both were hired by Henry Fine, for whom the PU mathematics building is named.

As a young man, John lived for awhile in Iowa City, Veblen's home town, and was one of the first astronomers to write, back in 1948, about the potential of the early computers that Veblen had done so much to bring into being.

During one of those visits to the mountains of Chile in the mid-1960s, my family drove one evening over to the mountain where John and his wife had their house. After dinner we played Hearts. I'm guessing it was his favorite card game, and quickly became ours. "I smell smoke," John would say ominously, when he surmised that someone was trying to flush the queen of spades. Other things John liked to say were "Much grass, poor flavor"--his comic play on the Spanish "muchas gracias, por favor"--and "We're off in a pile of monkey vomit," spoken with mock grandness at the beginning of a journey, lest we take human enterprise too seriously.

At some point that evening, I went outside and walked to the edge of the mountain, maneuvering around boulders and the droppings of goats. At the edge, lit by a deep universe of stars and moon, was a frozen ocean, extending out as far as I could see. It was the top of the massive cloud of fog that would move inland each night from the Pacific coast, bringing moisture to the desert. I wish everyone could have such vistas growing up, where the landscape draws your eye to look farther and farther into the distance, with the quality of the air the only limit. Maybe, with vistas like that to open up our minds and expand our thinking, we might take better care of that thin skin of air that comprises the earth's atmosphere, and take more of an interest in what lies ahead.

John Henry Barrows Irwin completed his itinerant astronomical career at Kean University, halfway between where his father grew up in Englewood, NJ, and his birthplace in Princeton. For retirement, he moved with his wife to Tucson, where he spent his last 20 years, climbing mountains.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Kuiper Belt and Veblen House--a Chance Connection

Here's a mix of recent news and personal past with a chance Veblen House connection. Kuiper, a name familiar to me from childhood, was in the news as 2019 began. In the wee hours of January 1st, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flew by "Ultima Thule," an object 4 billion miles from Earth in what is called the Kuiper Belt, home to Pluto and other frozen objects in what has been described as "a vast rim of primordial debris encircling our solar system."

The term "Kuiper Belt" was new to me, but astronomer Gerard Kuiper for whom it is named was a colleague of my father's at the University of Chicago's Yerkes Observatory. Kuiper's best known student was Carl Sagan, an astronomer who later did much to popularize science through his Cosmos television series and many books. From my recent correspondence with one of Sagan's friends and fellow student, Peter Pesch, it looks like Sagan was pursuing an unusual route in astronomy even back then: "Kuiper was exclusively interested in the solar system, which few of us were, except, of course, Carl Sagan."


In the photo, my father Al Hiltner and Gerard Kuiper are 2nd and 4th from the left, respectively, with Nobel prize winner Chandra first on the left.

Kuiper's name also popped up in a much more obscure location when I was researching the life of the Whiton-Stuarts, first owners of what became known as the Veblen House. The wife, Mary (Marshall Ogden) Whiton-Stuart, spent her last years in Tucson, AZ. Kuiper moved there in 1960 to found the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. Here's a snippet from a previous post on this website:

Astronomy and the Whiton-Stuarts came together in the Nov. 16, 1964 issue of the Tucson Daily Citizen, which included Mary's obituary and, elsewhere on the same page, an announcement:
"To Speak At Dinner--Meet Dr. Gerard Kuiper, director of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, will speak Sunday at the annual Compact Day dinner meeting of the Society of Mayflower Descendants in the State of Arizona." 
Mary was an eighth generation descendant not of Mayflower pilgrims, but of a pilgrim who settled in what would become New Jersey, John Ogden.

Update: In another unexpected link between Yerkes Observatory and Veblen House, I recently contacted a U. of Chicago alum who had written a strongly worded letter to the alumni magazine lamenting the university's having moved out of the observatory. The author, Daniel Campion, happens to live in Iowa City, where Oswald Veblen grew up. Daniel took a break from his writing to research Veblen's childhood home, which will be the subject of another post. He also sent me a "squib" he had published--a short poem about Ultima Thule called "Marriage Made in Heaven."

Monday, December 17, 2018

Veblen's Interactions with Astronomer and Visionary George E. Hale

Oswald Veblen loved buildings. He largely designed the first home for the Princeton University math department--the original Fine Hall--and as the Institute for Advanced Study came into being soon thereafter, his persistence ultimately overcame IAS founding director Abraham Flexner's resistance to building a home for the IAS.

That love of buildings may have been inherited from his grandfather, a Norwegian woodworker who immigrated to America and built a series of farms in Wisconsin, culminating in a beautifully crafted farmhouse now known as the Veblen House of Minnesota, where Oswald's father and famous uncle Thorstein grew up. Veblen's interest in buildings was surely further nurtured during his graduate and post-graduate years at the University of Chicago from 1900 to 1905, a time when great Chicago architects like Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright were influencing the future of architecture worldwide.


One building that may have caught Veblen's attention was Yerkes Observatory, built in 1897 by the University of Chicago. When Einstein traveled to America in 1921, this is one of the places he visited.

Located safely beyond the reach of big city lights, two hours north of Chicago in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, it was a revolutionary building in its time, combining telescopes with research and lab space in the same structure. Called "the birthplace of astrophysics," it still holds the largest refracting telescope in the world. Like the Institute for Advanced Study, whose beginnings and growth Veblen would greatly influence 30 years later, Yerkes was an elite academic enclave surrounded by nature on the outskirts of a small town.

It happens to be where I grew up, my father having been an astronomer there, and director for a stretch. When the University of Chicago closed Yerkes Observatory earlier this fall, it became like Veblen House, a historic building dependent on a nonprofit to imbue it with a new vision and a new life. That's when it occurred to me to look more closely for a connection between these two legacies.


That connection comes most clearly through astronomer George E. Hale, founder of Yerkes Observatory and faculty member at the University of Chicago from 1892 to 1905.




Born 12 years before Veblen, in 1868, Hale seems the very sort of kindred spirit Veblen would have been drawn to during their overlapping years at the University of Chicago. An extraordinary visionary, Hale had already founded a world-class observatory and would go on to found two more.

Wikipedia describes Hale as "a prolific organizer who helped create a number of astronomical institutions, societies and journals. Hale also played a central role in developing the California Institute of Technology into a leading research university." A "prolific organizer" who "played a central role"?  Veblen's legacy is often described in similar terms.

Hale and Veblen also shared a love of the outdoors. Hands-on types, they did not shy away from primitive conditions. Veblen's work for the military during WWI, studying the trajectories of artillery shells on horseback in the snowbound fields of Aberdeen Proving Grounds, shares a rugged, pioneer quality with Hale's experience installing the first telescope on a remote mountain in California twelve years before:
The story of the pioneer days on that mountain, when the astronomers lived under primitive conditions and all supplies had to be transported by burro and mule, has been dramatically told by Hale’s colleague and successor as director of the Mt. Wilson Observatory, Walter Adams. He describes Hale’s insight, courage, and enthusiasm and his unexpected reaction to the novel conditions:  
Apparently combined with a deep-seated love of nature in every form was the spirit of the pioneer, whose greatest joy is the adventure of starting with little and taking an active personal part in every phase of creation and growth. 
When both Hale and Veblen left the U. of Chicago in 1905, Hale moved west to Mount Wilson Observatory, while Veblen headed east to Princeton, but some recent internet research shows that they did indeed overlap multiple times thereafter, including on the Council for the National Academy of Sciences from 1926-7. Correspondence available in the Hale archives at Caltech show interactions over several decades. The mathematics/astronomy connection came into play while Veblen was bringing mathematicians together at Aberdeen to improve ballistics calculations for the military. For many who worked with Veblen there, it was a transformative experience, as in this letter W.H. Wright wrote to Hale in October, 1918, from Aberdeen Proving Grounds:
My dear Professor Hale:- It may surprise you to hear from me at this place, but I am here very largely as the result of a letter which you wrote some months ago on my behalf, though this is not the assignment I had in mind when I requested that favor of you. However, it is a most interesting place to be in. A great deal of work is being accomplished here, as you are doubtless aware, but the office is short of men competent to handle the complicated problems involved in the study of the flight and rotation of projectiles, and the work is held up on that account. The problem is one that appeals particularly to astronomers, and Major Veblen who has charge of the Range Firing Section at this post has requested me to look for men who are skillful in the theory and practice of astronomical computing, and has authorized me to endeavor to secure their service. The matter is one of exceptional urgency.
Often, Veblen would be mentioned in Hale's correspondence as a candidate for this or that committee. A letter from Gano Dunn to Hale in December, 1925, related to postwar fundraising efforts for science in collaboration with Herbert Hoover, gives a memorable description of Veblen:
I have only a good report for Veblen. He is all that you say altho rather academic in experience and point of view. I am not sure however that this will not be an asset instead of a liability, for I know of few who give so much the impression of a sincere and distinguished intellectually competent highbrow as he. And the keynote of our song is "money for the highbrows". 
Though there was clear connection between Hale and Veblen at various points in their careers as they worked to advance their respective fields and science in general, it's still unknown whether Yerkes Observatory, an extraordinary edifice rising out of the Wisconsin prairie,  itself informed Veblen's vision for what later became the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Making the Grade at Veblen House


Sometimes, the truth is in the ground, waiting to be discovered. While awaiting permission to restore the house itself, we have been restoring the original grade around the house, an important step as the slope of the ground determines whether rainwater runs towards the house or safely away.

Aerial photographs from the 1930s show bare ground in the shape of an oval where the house was being built by wealthy and unconventional Manhattanite Jesse Paulmier Whiton-Stuart. It took awhile for us to notice, but there are two ovals around Veblen House--one an oval of stone, the other an earthen berm that used to include a split rail fence. They may have had aesthetic or sentimental value for Whiton-Stuart--a lover of horses who may have enjoyed the idea of living inside a corral--but they also can serve to deflect runoff away from the house. All this circularity must have appealed as well to geometer Oswald Veblen when he and Elizabeth bought the house in 1941.


Long after the Veblens were gone, gravel was added around the house, probably in the 1980s. It may have served a purpose at the time but raised the ground level up to the wooden siding, making the house appear to be too low compared to the surrounding ground. A 2011 Mercer County study called for the house to be raised, at considerable cost.

Our approach has been instead to lower the ground to its original level. It may well have been my third grade teacher who planted the seeds of this logic, when she told the story of a big truck that got stuck under a bridge. There the truck remained while grownups puzzled over what to do. Raise the bridge? Cut the top off the truck? Nothing seemed to make sense. Then a boy happened by, saw the poor truck that couldn't go forward or back, and quietly suggested, "Why don't you let the air out of the tires?" That's the power of stories for you.

Most of the work has been done by Andrew Thornton, a local handyman who loves to work with stone and ground to build trails and raingardens.


As he dug through the layers around the house, he discovered a progression of stone, the prettiest of which was the deepest and likely the original.


A reddish stone gravel was on top, with a gray rough sand underneath, and the yellowish pebbles below.

Mixed in are clinkers, or slag, from the days when the house was heated with coal.

Digging down through the extra gravel has exposed an old gas pipe, which fed gas into the house from a tank, and an electrical wire leading to the garage.

Now that water can flow once again away from the house, Andrew was digging a route for it to escape the inner oval when he came upon an old concrete drain that had long been hidden ten inches underground. Andrew's instinct about where the water should flow proved to be the original owner's as well.

The drain feeds into a pipe that is part of an elaborate system meant to keep the house dry despite its low position in the landscape.

We had a similarly serendipitous experience while restoring another part of the stone wall. Deciding to build steps leading up through the wall, we began digging out a spot for the steps when we encountered big stone steps already in place, hidden just a few inches underground.


Anyone who read The Great Escape, about POWs who secretly dug a tunnel to escape a concentration camp during WWII, knows that all the excavated material needs a place to go. The red gravel has become an oval walkway around the house that will divert surface runoff away from the foundation.


The gray sand has become a berm to catch runoff coming down the slope and use it to feed a raingarden.


Plant labels will help our species get acquainted with the raingarden's species.

The excavation and redistribution was completed in time for the June 24 picnic to celebrate Oswald Veblen's 138th birthday.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Taking a Duck for a Nature Walk


Kurt and I were working on the Veblen House grounds in preparation for the June 24 Veblen birthday gathering (all invited), when some hikers came walking by. Keeping pace with them was their pet duck. Many people walk their dogs at Herrontown Woods, but a young duck also makes a good walking partner.


Her owner explained that the duck is a Magpie named Squishy. I was delighted, but not surprised, as I had made the same trek five years earlier with my daughter and her two-month old runner duck. Ducks are truly astounding in many ways, two of which are the way they imprint on their owners, and their capacity to walk for miles, even from the get go--newly hatched, when they look uncannily like windup toys that never lose their spring.

We got a close look at the Magpie's distinctive feathers and hairstyle--very trendy.

With more presence of mind, I might have invited them over to the Veblen House yard, where Squishy could have enjoyed the little fish pond. But they all looked like they were ready for a good hike, duck included.


They live in Philadelphia, and come up every year or so for a hike at Herrontown Woods. Kurt offered to show them the cliff, which we only rediscovered a few years ago, so off they went, the duck very much one of the gang.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Feature Article on Veblen in the Princeton Alumni Magazine


Thanks to the research and writing talents of Elyse Graham, the Princeton Alumni Weekly devoted its May 16 cover and a feature article to Oswald Veblen and his tireless work in the 1930s and 1940s to find positions in the U.S. for European scholars whose careers and lives were imperiled by the Nazi rise.

post about how the article, and a previous article entitled "Adventures in Fine Hall", contribute to an increasing recognition of Veblen's legacy can be found on the Friends of Herrontown Woods website.

Here are some quotes from the article that provide some insight into Veblen's character:
"Tall and lanky, he had the furtive vanity typical of a mathematician, dressing in handsome but deliberately shabby suits. One of his colleagues, Hermann Goldstine, recalled, 'We always had a theory with Veblen that after he bought a new jacket and pants he would hire somebody to wear them for a few years so that they wouldn’t look new when he put them on.'" 
His eye for talent and lack of professional jealousy:
"Veblen was able to build exciting communities in part because he had an eye for talent and an utter lack of professional jealousy. Goldstine later recalled, 'I think the nicest part about Veblen is that however great a mathematician he was, and he certainly was a great mathematician, he recognized greatness in mathematicians and in scientists, and as far as I know he had no envy for people who were greater than he. And that’s not trivial.'" 
Veblen's motivations:
"according to Institute fellow Leon Cohen, '.... My impression was that young mathematicians of some talent were regarded as resources to be saved.' Cohen added, 'I hesitate to attribute views to Veblen, but the considerations that seem to have actuated him were two: a concern for the welfare of mathematics itself, and a humane concern for certain individuals who had talent.'" 
The article makes frequent mention of lists Veblen compiled of displaced European scholars and how they might contribute to an American educational institution willing to take them in. An echo of Schindler's List can be heard in these gathered names of people who, for lack of a work position in America, might otherwise lose their lives in a Nazi concentration camp.
"Similar lists went out steadily from Veblen’s office to institutions all over the United States, urgent in their volume but, in their expression, as mild and as persistent as snow: 'If it were thought advisable ... ,' 'It is my impression ... ,' 'The clerical work would be very little, using the available facilities.'"
Again, a memorable quote from Herman Goldstine:

"'I think all of Veblen’s life he was a natural administrator and leader,' Goldstine said. 'He was the kind of guy who would keep dripping water on the stone until finally it eroded. If it didn’t happen otherwise, he just kept at it, and at it, and at it.'" 


Maybe that was one reason why Veblen was drawn to the land that later became Herrontown Woods: the many diabase boulders there are highly resistant to erosion, and yet they too ultimately yield to the power of water to slowly create fissures. 

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Renowned Wildlife Champion, Esmond Bradley Martin: The Veblen House Connection


Today, on World Wildlife Day, a tribute to one of the world's great champions of elephants and rhinos. Esmond Bradley Martin devoted his life to investigating illicit trade in tusks and rhino horn, uncovering information critical to efforts to stem the slaughter of these extraordinary animals. Dr. Martin was murdered in his home in Nairobi a month ago, on Feb. 4. He was 76. The motive is not yet clear, though the nature of his often dangerous work could potentially have made him a target. Other possible motives were a botched robbery and a local land dispute. Whatever the motive, the meaning is in his extraordinary life and the cause he devoted himself to.

The news had additional meaning for all of us working to save Veblen House. Research into the Whiton-Stuart family that built the house (the Veblens were the second owners) had uncovered a remarkable connection. At age 63, Robert, the son of the Whiton-Stuarts, married Edwina Atwell Martin, mother of Esmond, making Esmond the step-grandson of the builders of Veblen House. Esmond is the great grandson of Henry Phipps, boyhood friend and business partner of Andrew Carnegie. There is a botanical connection as well: Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden in Pittsburgh, PA.

As Dan Stiles described in one of countless tributes, Esmond worked closely with his wife Chryssee and colleague Lucy Vigne, often going under cover to "find the obscure open-air wildlife markets and back-alley shops and count the numbers of what he saw, note the prices, find out who was supplying and who was buying, for what purpose ..." Without this information, it would have been impossible to identify what countries were creating demand for poaching.

He was, it could be said, seeking to expose the perilous cultural addiction that has driven an unconscionable pillaging of nature. 

Again from the Smithsonian article:
"Among Martin’s contributions to the field: highlighting increased demand for rhino horn in Yemen in 2008, showing the drop in Japanese demand for ivory in 2010, detailing a burgeoning ivory trade in Hong Kong in 2011, and explaining the reduction in rhino poaching in Nepal in 2013. His most recent research documented how Laos’s and Vietnam’s ivory markets are booming."
There were tributes from Jane Goodall, disciple Tom Milliken, Brian Jackman, and many others. Brian Jackman begins his tribute this way:
"Snappily dressed like Tom Wolfe in a cream linen suit, a silk handkerchief spilling from his breast pocket and his silver hair flopping over his forehead, Esmond Bradley Martin, who was murdered in Nairobi last week, looked more like a literary critic than the sworn enemy of the illegal trade in ivory and rhino horn. He was a man with impeccable manners and a fondness for string quartets and antebellum architecture.

But beneath that deceptively fey exterior he was as tough as teak and totally fearless as he worked undercover, posing as a buyer to expose the smuggling cartels and their international trafficking routes between Africa and south-east Asia."
Additional homages from a Huffington Post article:
“Esmond was one of conservation’s great unsung heroes,” said Save the Elephants’ founder, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, who, along with Bradley Martin and Stiles documented the catastrophic fall in elephant numbers and brought the issue to the world stage. His meticulous work into ivory and rhino horn markets was conducted often in some of the world’s most remote and dangerous places and against intensely busy schedules that would have exhausted a man half his age … He was my friend for 45 years and his loss is a terrible blow both personally and professionally.” 
“He was a giant of a man in his field – quite literally, his tall, gangling figure and shock of white hair made him an unlikely undercover investigator,” said Greg Neale, ex-environment correspondent at the Telegraph. “But that was part of his role as he sought to understand the extent of the rhino horn (and ivory) trade, often putting himself at real risk in some of the world’s most lawless places to establish the economic and cultural background to the forces driving the rhino and elephant towards extinction.”
The Friends of Herrontown Woods has reached out to the Martin family with condolences for this tragic loss, and has expressed a desire to use Veblen House in part to honor Esmond's work and example in an ongoing way. From what we've learned, Esmond Bradley Martin exemplified the quiet yet indefatigable and profoundly influential approach for which Oswald Veblen was known.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Whiton-Stuarts--The Prescott Years

Everything about the lives of Jesse and Mary Whiton-Stuart (builders and first occupants of what came to be called Veblen House) seems to have an interesting twist. Each decade of their lives brings a new adventure. Around 1912, after spending the first decade of the 20th century establishing his real estate business in Manhattan, marrying and having two children, Jesse moved to Prescott, AZ. Here's Jesse's account, from a 1913 update he sent in to Harvard University, fifteen years after his class would have graduated.
I left Harvard on account of illness, and travelled when not in or preparing for Williams and Cambridge, England. I saw Russia, Armenia, all of Europe, the Far East three times, the Holy Land, Greece and was one of few that crossed Persia to the Gulf, also West and Africa. I was a real estate specialist for ten years in New York, and am still president of the J.P. Whiton-Stuart Company, New York, where I saved enough to buy a herd of cattle in Arizona. I now live on a horse’s back, riding over one hundred square miles of cattle range I rent from the United States government in the largest forest in the United States. Member: Union Club of New York, Yavapai Club of Prescott, Az.
Why did he leave New York? Well, we know from various sources that Jesse loved horses, the outdoors, and adventure. He makes no mention of the family going along, and one description handed down from his years in Princeton was that kids weren't his cup of tea. There's a newsclipping from Prescott's Weekly Journal-Miner, however, that says Mary bought 25 acres close to his in August, 1913.




And there's evidence that the kids lived there in another clipping, from 1937. By "a few years ago", they mean 20.


Jesse may have already gotten to know Arizona before he got married. His update sent to Harvard in 1908 says he "hunted as an avocation throughout the West."
"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."
By seeking hunting adventures out west as a young man, and later leaving New York City to start a ranch, Jesse was following in the footsteps of Teddy Roosevelt, who had written three books about his similar adventures thirty years prior. A National Park Service account tells of how a young Teddy Roosevelt headed west to hunt for bison, and ended up investing in the ranching business just as ranchers were crowding the prairies with cattle to fill the void left by the slaughter of bison. The overabundance of cattle led to overgrazing, followed by a massive dieoff of cattle during an unusually harsh winter. The carnage brought an end to Roosevelt's ranching business, and a new awareness of how human folly could lay waste even the vast lands of the West. For Roosevelt, the experience of hunting and ranching in the Dakota Badlands served as a right of passage to manhood, and spawned in Roosevelt the conservation ethic that would become so prominent when he became president. Jesse, growing up as an only child, tutored in his parents' home on Park Avenue, may have found similar rewards out west.


As with the previously unknown Natchez, Mississippi, birthplace of Jesse's wife Mary Marshall Ogden, Prescott gets more interesting the more one reads about it. There are distinctive rock outcroppings, and the 1.25 million acre Prescott Forest where Jesse had his ranch. Aldo Leopold, of Sand County Almanac fame, spent the early years of his career, from 1909 to 1924, in that area, writing management plans and handbooks for the forest service, including a report on Prescott National Forest in 1920. Fun facts about Leopold: he was born 80 miles south of where Veblen grew up in Iowa, and moved to the Princeton area a year before Veblen, to go to Lawrenceville School in 1904.

In more recent times, long after the Whiton-Stuarts left, an Ecosa Institute that teachers "innovative ecological design" was founded in Prescott by a disciple of Paolo Solari, whose nearby Arcosanti is an experimental alternative to urban sprawl. Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West is another hour south, established closer to Phoenix in 1937.

How things went for the Whiton-Stuart family out west is anyone's guess. Inquiries with the Arizona Historical Society and the Sharlot Hall Museum Library and Archives have not uncovered any information about the Whiton-Stuarts' stay in Prescott. It's probably pure coincidence that a lake in the photo, outside of Prescott, is called Watson Lake, and Jesse's stepfather's middle name is Watson.

Adding mystery is a March 17, 1912 notice in the Arizona Republic newspaper of Phoenix that has Jesse living in Tuscarora, Nevada, and in need of various dogs. This fits well with a description handed down from Princeton native Martha Cortelyou ("Marnie") Allen, of Jesse driving around Princeton in a station wagon with three Cocker spaniels in the back.
WANTS PET STOCK A Jerome man refers to Harry Welch, secretary of the board of trade, a letter from J. P. W. Stuart of Tuscarora Nevada, in which some local people may take a business interest. Mr. Stuart is desirous of securing a supply of pet stock, almost any kind but preferably dogs. Two Maltese kittens will satisfy him in the cat line but when It comes to dogs his taste is more varied. First he would like an English bloodhound pup. Then he wants two English or Gordon setter pups and a Chesapeake Bay dog pup or water spaniel. He says he does not want them for show purposes from which it is surmised he is more concerned about good blood than fancy points. Any Phoenix man carrying a line of dogs will do well to correspond with Mr. Stuart.
By 1920, the Whiton-Stuarts were back east, living in Morristown, NJ. The move to Princeton, along with the prefab house that would later become the Veblen House, would come a decade later.

Whiton-Stuart's reports back to Harvard--thus far our only samples of his writing--offer hints of why he and his wife decided to move to the Princeton Ridge lands in the 1930s. By then in his late 50s, Jesse might have been drawn to Princeton's golden age of mathematics, which Veblen had so much to do with, and also the prospect of riding his horses in a part of Princeton that has rock outcroppings vaguely reminiscent of Prescott. 

Saturday, December 30, 2017

2017: A Memorable Year for Women Mathematicians

Before the cascading events of this fall put the national focus on women in the workplace, it was already a significant year for appreciating women and their contributions to mathematics.


Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson
The movie Hidden Figures, released just days before 2017 began, tells of the critical role three black female mathematicians played in the U.S. space program. A hunch and some research uncovered a Veblen connection to that wonderful story.

This hidden role of women has played out repeatedly in the history of mathematics and computers. It's commonly said that though early computing machines were largely designed by men, it was the women who figured out how to actually run them. Women with keen mathematical ability had already proved themselves as the first computers, whether for NASA or for Veblen's ballistics work for the U.S. military during the World Wars. A little research yielded a story from my little home town of Williams Bay, Wisconsin, home of Yerkes Observatory. According to Wikipedia, Chandreskhar, a colleague of my father's and a future Nobel Prize winner, in the 1940s
"had used top performing female high school students from Williams Bay, Lake Geneva, Elkhorn and Burlington, Wisconsin to calculate immensely difficult mathematical equations entirely by long hand, and found that their abilities and vigilance were unparalleled."

Cathleen Synge Morawetz
There's also a Veblen connection to another great female mathematician, Cathleen Synge Morawetz, who died this past August. A writeup on the American Mathematical Society website tells of her distinguished career, including many firsts for a female mathematician. At age 90, she and her husband made a donation to significantly increase funding for the Veblen Prize in geometry, out of gratitude for a kindness Oswald showed to her father a long time ago. The touching story is taken from an AMS article.
"This long association with the AMS played a part in her decision, in celebration of her 90th birthday last year, to make a major donation to the Society. The gift from her and her husband, Herbert Morawetz, significantly increased the size of the long-underfunded Oswald Veblen Prize Fund, bringing it on a par with other AMS prize funds. Veblen was a good friend of Morawetz’s father, John Lighton Synge. How this friendship began is recounted in Synge’s article “For the 100th birthday of the American Mathematical Society”, which appeared in A Century of Mathematics in America: Part 1, edited by Peter Duren (AMS, 1988). The article is a written version of a talk Synge gave at the AMS Centennial Celebration in 1988. 
In the article, he recalls an AMS meeting he attended in December 1921 in Toronto. He had come to Toronto from Dublin the year before and found few colleagues with mathematical interests similar to his own. His encounter with Veblen at that AMS meeting and the kindness and consideration Veblen showed were important to Synge as he made his way in mathematics in a new land. At the time Synge wrote the article, he was 91 years old, the same age his daughter is now. One hears in his article an echo of the lively intellect and warmth of Cathleen Synge Morawetz. For those qualities and for her many contributions to mathematics and to the profession, she has evoked great fondness in the mathematical community."
After getting contact info from friend and distinguished mathematician Joe Kohn, I tried to reach out to her this past March to let her know about our initiative to save the Veblen House, but was unable to reach her. A video interview of her, late in life, tells of how her mentor at NYU, Richard Courant, had also been a supporter of Emmy Noether (see below) in Goettingen, how becoming pregnant actually hastened her getting a PhD, and how she was for a time a trustee at Princeton University. It appears that Veblen assisted not only Moravetz's father, but also played a quiet role in laying the groundwork for her own career. A book named "Hilbert-Courant", by Constance Reid, describes Veblen's role in encouraging Courant to take a position at New York University in 1933.

Maryam Mirzakhani
2017 also saw the loss at age 40 of mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani. She was the first and thus far only female mathematician to win the Fields Medal. Born in Iran, her brief but brilliant career as a professor began at Princeton before moving to Stanford.

Marina Ratner
She died this past July, after defying conventional expectations of a mathematician's trajectory by doing her best mathematical work in her later years, after turning 40.

Emmy Noether
Last but not least, and more appropriately first and most, Emmy Noether gained much deserved recognition in 2017 as part of a historical initiative at the Institute for Advanced Study entitled A Refuge for Scholars. Like Einstein, who called her one of the greatest mathematicians of all time, she was displaced by the Nazi takeover of Germany. It was Veblen who took the lead in finding her a position at Bryn Mawr and inviting her to be a Visitor at the IAS. Despite her talents being commensurate with male mathematicians of the time, or of all time, her career options were limited, as was her salary. She died in 1935 after complications from surgery. This poster about her has been on display at the IAS Fuld Hall.








Saturday, November 11, 2017

Seeking Whitons in Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery

Together, Veblen House and Cottage tell a story that extends from great wealth to hardscrabble farming. Though Oswald Veblen has been the central historic character, the house was built and first lived in by the Whiton-Stuarts, whose extraordinary wealth and history is becoming more apparent the deeper we dig. Veblen's grandfather was a pioneer farmer in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Whiton-Stuart's grandfather made a fortune playing a big role in the early growth of railroads in the mid-1800s. A granduncle worked for Lincoln supervising the military railroad during the Civil War.

Internet research has been augmented by a few field trips. First, some friends, visiting Brooklin, Maine, tracked down the Veblens' summer cottage. More recently, we found the family burial grounds for the Whitons in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, NY.


Green-Wood Cemetery is no ordinary resting place. One of the first rural cemeteries in the U.S., it occupies some lovely high ground in Brooklyn, with vistas of the New York city skyline. Like Herrontown Woods, which was in part a reaction to the rapid displacement of rural landscape by post-WWII suburban growth in eastern Princeton, Green-Wood was a response to the rapid growth that was overcrowding NY's more traditional churchyard burial sites.

Hard to say how the dead feel about Green-Wood, but it's a very pleasant place for the living to visit. The entryway makes a statement of general grandeur. Green parrots found the gateway sufficiently impressive that they have fashioned a communal apartment complex high up in the main tower. These are not the native Carolina parakeets, which were hunted to extinction around the same time as the mighty passenger pigeon, but escaped pet monk parrots originally imported from Argentina.

Before Ohmsted designed Manhattan's Central Park and Brooklyn's Prospect Park, he may have taken inspiration from Green-Wood Cemetery, which in mid-19th century was "attracting 500,000 visitors a year, second only to Niagara Falls as the nation’s greatest tourist attraction."



Since 1838, it's been the prestigious place to be buried. Part bird sanctuary, part Revolutionary War battlefield--you can follow its curving, maze-like pathways

to people like Leonard Bernstein, who probably would have preferred to have been buried closer to the Steinway family several hillocks away.

The grave markers proclaim their names loudly as you pass by, prompting leaps of the imagination. Is Henry A. Hudson related to the famous Henry Hudson?

Is this the real McCoy? So much to research, so little time.

Fortunately, this visit had a clear mission: find the Whiton family, without which there would have been no Jesse Paulmier Whiton-Stuart to bring the (Veblen) House to Princeton in the 1930s.

The Whitons are gathered around a central obelisk with names carved on each of its four sides.


Front and center is Augustus Sherrill Whiton, grandfather of Jesse. In 1838, as a newly trained civil engineer, he helped design the first branch of the Erie Railroad--the first railroad outlet to the west of New York--which would swing north up the Hudson, then west to Lake Erie. He later became superintendent of the Erie Railroad, and made a large fortune during over 40 years in the railroad business.

In 1843 Augustus was married to Caroline, daughter of Thomas Ward, the Ramapo ironmaster and landed proprietor.

Elizabeth Whiton, also on the obelisk, was their second child.

Jesse seems to have had quite a granddad on his father's side. The Whiton Family of America: The Genealogy of the Descendants of Thomas Whiton (1635), describes Augustus this way:
The following is taken from an obituary published in the Christian Intelligencer:

"The pastor of one of the New York City churches has written us in a recent letter, "Many a time in recent years as I have reviewed my own life and recalled those whose character has inspired me, the picture of Mr. Whiton has been recalled to my mind. His balance of judgement was so true, his sympathy so constant, that as I think of him over a space of almost a score of years his likeness is very near the ideal of Christian manhood."



One of Augustus' brothers, William Henry Whiton, also spent his life in the railroad business. He became son-in-law to the president of the Erie Railroad, and during the Civil War found himself essentially running the wartime railroad for Abraham Lincoln.

There was a steam engine named after WH Whiton that was photographed pulling a railroad car specially made for President Lincoln, and which would later carry Lincoln's casket on the long funeral procession back to Illinois.



Jesse's father was Augustus Ward Whiton, the third child of Caroline Ward and Augustus Sherrill Whiton. Augustus Ward Whiton married Jennie Paulmier, then tragically died a year or two later "at Augusta, GA from an illness contracted on their wedding trip to Europe." Augustus W. had graduated from Columbia University, and was part of a railroad supply firm. Their only child was Jesse, born in Jersey City, which became terminus for the Erie Railroad in 1853.

Jesse acquired his hyphenated last name, Whiton-Stuart, when his mother remarried.

There are other surnames in this cluster of gravestones around the obelisk--Little, Faulkner, Pendleton, Bell, Bouche, and Quiggle--but those await further exploring.

Jesse's mother Jennie is buried elsewhere in Green-Wood, next to the Stuart obelisk with her second husband, and Jesse strayed from his family at the end of his life, to be buried out in California.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Mathematics and Memory Meet in Tucson, AZ


This post is prompted by a texted photo from a friend of mine, Carl Hildebrandt. It wasn't a casual selfie. He took it only after riding his bike all the way up a mountain outside Tucson, AZ to reach Kitt Peak Observatory, where there's a telescope named after my father.

Carl, too, has math and science flowing through his veins. His grandfather Theophil Henry Hildebrandt's career as a mathematician paralleled Veblen's in many ways. Hildebrandt arrived at University of Chicago for graduate work just as Veblen was leaving for Princeton, had the same advisor, E.H. Moore, then went on to chair the math department at University of Michigan from 1934-57, and serve as president of the American Mathematical Society from 1945-6. Carl's uncle Theodore spent 1947-8 working at Princeton with von Neumann, Goldstine, and Julian Bigelow on the IAS computer project.


This snippet from Century of Mathematics in America portrays the University of Chicago as the academic center of gravity for American mathematics in 1900, spawning the PhD's who would then go forth to lead the growth of mathematics at Princeton, Harvard, Michigan and other institutions in the 20th century.

Concurrent with this fertile production of many of mathematic's future leaders, Chicago also built Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin, which in 1897 was far from city lights. Yerkes, where I lived while my father was an astronomer there, had many qualities similar to Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study--an academic enclave surrounded by fields and woods on the outskirts of a small town. The observatory remained a center of cutting edge research until the second half of the 20th century, when more advanced telescopes sprouted in drier climes, such as Kitt Peak, AZ.

Tucson drew not only astronomers like my father, but also two of the Whiton-Stuarts--the family that built what would later be called Veblen House. They had already lived in Prescott, AZ, decades earlier, where Jesse spent his days on horseback herding cattle--a change of pace from running his high-end real estate firm in Manhattan. His wife, Mary (Marshall Ogden) Whiton-Stuart later moved back to Arizona to live in Tucson for the last 13 years of her life, as did her daughter, Silvia, for portions of that time.

Astronomy and the Whiton-Stuarts came together in the Nov. 16, 1964 issue of the Tucson Daily Citizen, which included Mary's obituary and, elsewhere on the same page, an announcement:
"To Speak At Dinner--Meet Dr. Gerard Kuiper, director of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, will speak Sunday at the annual Compact Day dinner meeting of the Society of Mayflower Descendants in the State of Arizona." 
Gerard Kuiper was a colleague of my father's at Yerkes, and Mary may well have been a member of the Society of Mayflower Descendants. They might have met had she lived a little longer.

Thanks to Carl for prompting me to weave all these threads together.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Are Princeton's Veblen House, Marquand Park and Drumthwacket Connected?



A document has been found online by our Veblen House historian-in-residence that suggests a long-standing connection--whether it be political, social, economic, or all of the above--between the builder of Veblen House and some of the most influential families in Princeton's history. In December of 1876, 22 prominent citizens of New York wrote a letter to the U.S. Congress about one of the most controversial presidential elections in U.S. history. The presidency remained in doubt until the following March, rivaling our more recently disputed election in 2000. The letter appears to be high-minded and nonpartisan, though the resolution of the election three months later would have immense ramifications for race relations.

What's relevant to this post are three names on the list: J and J Stuart and Co, Henry G. Marquand, and Moses Taylor.

One of the "J"s in J and J Stuart is James Stuart--the step-grandfather of Jesse Paulmier Whiton-Stuart, who brought what would later be called the Veblen House to Princeton in the early 1930s.

And might Henry G. Marquand have something to do with Marquand Park in Princeton? According to Roland Machold, who with his wife Pam helps oversee care of Marquand Park,
"Henry G. Marquand was the father of Alan Marquand, who purchased and named Guernsey Hall in 1885. Alan's wife, Eleanor, donated Marquand Park to Princeton Borough in 1953. Henry was a successful financier in New York City and served for many years as the head of the Board of Trustees of the Metropolitan Museum until 1902, when he died. His portrait hangs in the University art museum, as does his wife’s, painted by John Singer Sargeant."
It would be interesting to explore whether the donation of Marquand Park, which the Veblens would have passed on their way to the Institute for Advanced Study, might have provided some inspiration for the Veblens to donate Herrontown Woods as a nature preserve four years later.

And might the Moses Taylor who co-signed the letter be related to Moses Taylor Pyne, whose Drumthwacket estate in Princeton would later become the official residence of the governor of New Jersey? Pyne was "one of Princeton University's greatest benefactors and its most influential trustee." Here's a paragraph from the wikipedia entry:
The son of Percy Rivington Pyne and Albertina Shelton Taylor, Pyne was born in New York City in 1855, and graduated from Princeton in 1877. Pyne inherited an enormous fortune from his maternal grandfather and namesake, Moses Taylor who was first president of the First National City Bank of New York and a stockholder in the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad.
If the grandfathers of Jesse Whiton-Stuart and Moses Taylor Pyne moved in the same social and financial circles in New York, then it seems far less coincidental that Jesse and his wife Mary would move to Princeton and build their house on a parcel adjacent to what once was the horse farm for Moses Taylor Pyne's daughter-in-law.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Themes from Veblen House Show Up in Children's Books


When the Veblen's donated their house to the public trust, they conceived of it becoming a museum and library. We hope to incorporate these elements into the house as part of its future use as a community gathering place for meetings, talks and performances. The library would ideally be a collection of books connected thematically to the Whiton-Stuart and Veblen families.

So it was that, amid the crowds of kids and parents exploring the sea of books and talking with the authors at the recent Princeton Children's Book Festival,  I sought out books with themes related to those who had built and lived at Veblen House.

Daniel Kirk's book, Rhino in the House, caught my eye. It tells the story of Anna Merz, who witnessed the plight of rhinos in Africa and decided to create a preserve where they would be safe from poaching. Our Veblen House historical research has uncovered a remarkable connection to these heroic efforts. The Whiton-Stuarts' grandson-in-law is Esmond Bradley Martin, who has devoted his life to saving rhinos and elephants in Africa and Asia. 

In Anna Merz's obituary, we learn that Esmond Martin was Merz's first contact in Africa as she became interested in rhinos.
Retiring to Kenya with her second husband in 1976, Merz learned from elephant and rhino conservationist Esmond Bradley Martin that rhinos were close to being poached to extinction throughout their range in both Africa and Asia. In 1982 Merz invested her own savings in helping David and Delia Craig to convert their Lewa Estate into the Ngare Sergoi Rhino Sanctuary.
This interview of Martin, in Swara Magazine: The Voice of Conservation in East Africa, includes a photo of Anna Merz with the orphaned rhino, Samia, that she raised and is featured in Kirk's book.


There's a short video about the book, with the author on location in Africa.

Author Jane Yolen's work first caught my eye with the assonant title "Thunder Underground". I had been looking (in vain) for books that depict the invisible mechanisms of climate change, and Thunder Underground seemed a related effort to convey the unseen to children.

But more relevant to Veblen House is her book, "The Devil's Arithmetic," about the detailed records the Nazi's kept of what became known as the Holocaust. Veblen led efforts to find employment for jewish physicists and mathematicians seeking refuge in the U.S. as the Nazi's took control of Germany in the 1930s.

Kate Hosford's "How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea" looks like good reading for an envisioned children's reading hour next to the hearth at Veblen House. The Veblens instituted the tradition of tea, first at the original Fine Hall mathematics center on Princeton University campus, then later at the Institute for Advanced Study. The tradition lives on, daily at the IAS, and periodically at what is now called Jones Hall. Elizabeth Veblen developed her passion for tea growing up in York, England, before moving to Princeton and meeting Oswald, whom she must have decided was her perfect cup of tea.