Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Mathematician's Dot and Line Forest

(originally posted at

This shot was taken while walking down off the Princeton Ridge towards the small farmstead in Herrontown Woods, in eastern Princeton. It was a clear, crisp afternoon earlier this fall. The boulders, which diminish in size as one walks downhill, add punctuation to the woods--dots to go with the trees' lines.

Which reminds me of one of my favorite books growing up, "The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics", in which a line falls in love with a dot and seeks to win her over from her squiggly boyfriend by overcoming his stiffness and learning how to make all sorts of magnificent shapes. It's still available online, and there's even a ten minute animated movie version on youtube.

The first 81 acres of Herrontown Woods were donated to Mercer County back in 1957 by the famous mathematician and his wife, Oswald and Elizabeth Veblen. They lived the last decades of their lives there, in the Veblen House, clearly in love with the dot and line woodlands of the ridge.

Though my daughter didn't know it, her pause next to the trail to gaze across the light-filled woodland was exactly what the Veblens had in mind. According to a New York Times article at the time of the donation, "Mr. and Mrs. Veblen donated the tract because they felt this rapidly developing area was in dire need of a public park. 'There is nowhere around here where you can get away from cars and just go walk and sit,' Mrs. Veblen said. 'Princeton, when we came here in 1905, was a lovely village,' Mrs. Veblen declared. She explained that the donation was made in the hope that a little bit of this outdoor atmosphere will be preserved.'"

And so it was, and so has much more been preserved over the decades, building on that simple but central vision of a place to go walk and sit. The romance of the dot and the line ends with a moral: "To the vector belong the spoils." We are surely the vectors, imbued with direction and magnitude, with many hard-won trails and vistas to call our own.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Veblen: Open Space and Buildings As Environment

The Institute for Advanced Study's website offers a compelling account of Oswald Veblen's instrumental role, not only in convincing Flexner to locate the Institute in Princeton but also in acquiring land for the Institute campus. Veblen was a multi-faceted environmentalist, in that he designed the environment (old Fine Hall) in which the university's mathematics department (and for its first few years the Institute for Advanced Study) would prosper, and then helped to acquire the land for the Institute campus. Once he had convinced Flexner in 1934 of the value of locating the Institute on the edge of town, Veblen bargained with landowners over the next decade to help acquire 610 of the Institute's eventual 800 acres.

Most of those acres became preserved open space fifty years later. According to the NJtrails website, "A coalition of nonprofit organizations, with support from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Green Acres program and Princeton Township, in 1997 preserved as open space a 589-acre property owned by the Institute for Advanced Study." About half of that acreage is woods, the rest of it farmland that continues to be farmed. 

While he was seeking land for the Institute to acquire on the east side of Princeton, Veblen was also acquiring land of his own on the west side of town. Those 100 acres were later donated by Veblen and his wife to Mercer County as Herrontown Woods. Veblen's initiative and "ground-saving" work in the 1930s and 40s can be seen as laying the foundation for the remarkable efforts to preserve open space in Princeton a half century later.

It is worth noting that Veblen, over the course of his life in Princeton, was not only interested in open space where scholars and the public could walk, dream and reflect, but also the buildings within which scholarly work and nature study could be pursued. He took great interest in the design of the university's old Fine Hall and the Institute's Fuld Hall, and when he and his wife donated their house in Herrontown Woods to the county, they did so with the intent that it become a library and museum. He must have viewed the buildings, then, as an integral part of the beneficial and nurturing "environment" we inhabit.

It is up to us, even at this late date, to see this vision through, to view the Veblen House as a vital part of the Herrontown Woods nature preserve.