Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Roots of Veblen's Passion for Woodchopping

This post is one of the ripples emanating out across the internet from a New York Times article yesterday describing a widely watched TV program in Norway about firewood. Eight hours of the program were devoted to firewood burning in a fireplace, with considerable Facebook input from viewers about exactly where the next log should be placed.

I had assumed that Oswald Veblen had inherited his passion for the outdoors, and woodchopping in particular, from his midwestern pioneer grandparents, but the Times article suggests that his Norwegian roots may have played a bigger role.

These photos, from the last decade of Veblen's life, after he and his wife Elizabeth had moved to the outskirts of town at the edge of Herrontown Woods on the northeast side of Princeton, show some European-influenced structures near their house--the hay barrack, dove cote and, mostly hidden in the background, a large circular rock wall reminiscent of sheepfolds found on the internet.

Hopefully, close inspection of a higher resolution version of the photo will reveal whether the wood sheltered under the hay barrack is stacked with the bark up or down. According to the Times article, Norwegians are in passionate disagreement--deeply split, if you will--about which orientation of bark is best.

Max Latterman, out standing in his wood pile, was the Veblens' loyal groundskeeper, and appears in this photo to be as enthusiastic a wood splitter as Oswald Veblen was reputed to be.

The Times article offers enticing tidbits about Norwegian firewood culture, and the link between firewood and character. Here are a couple quotes:

“You can tell a lot about a person from his firewood stack.”


"...Derek Miller, an expatriate American and author of the novel “Norwegian by Night,” said the broadcast appealed to Norwegians’ nostalgia for a simpler time as well as demonstrating the importance of firewood in their lives. “The sense of creating warmth, both symbolically and literally, to share conversation, to share food, to share silence, is essential to the Norwegian identity,” he said in an interview."

The mixing of symbolic and literal warmth brings to mind my neighbor, an elderly woman and painter who told of Elizabeth Veblen inviting her over for tea in front of the fire, and the still intact tradition of tea that the Veblens started at the Institute. A recent post at another blog of mine, rhapsodizing about the radiance of wood stoves, can be found at the following link.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Veblen Legacy--A Bringing Together

The Veblens, together, brought minds together,
Mind and body together,
Old World and New World together,
Nature and culture together,
Past and future together.

They mended parcels of land back together.
Preserving land, the Veblens brought town and countryside together,
Even town and gown together, by touching and transforming both with the legacy they left,

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Presentation on Veblen House Feb. 10, 11am

As part of tomorrow's programming for this last weekend of te 2013  Princeton Environmental Film Festival, I'll give my presentation on the legacy of Princeton visionary Oswald Veblen and the 1920 prefab house, 1870 farm cottage, and 95 acres of Herrontown Woods nature preserve he and his wife, Elizabeth, left to Mercer County. The presentation starts at 11am Sunday, Feb. 10 at the Princeton Public Library.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Veblen Legacy on Exhibit

Coincident with my upcoming presentation on the Veblens and the Veblen House, at the Princeton Environmental Film Festival on Sunday, Feb. 10 at 11am, the archive room at the Institute for Advanced Study is currently hosting an exhibit on mathematician and visionary Oswald Veblen. There is, according to past director of the Institute, Peter Goddard, an increasing appreciation of Veblen's legacy.

Most people associate the Veblen name with Oswald's uncle Thorstein, the famous economist and social critic, who coined the phrase "conspicuous consumption". Mathematicians are aware of the Oswald Veblen Prize in geometry, awarded every three years. There is, however, no prominent book, phrase, building or nature preserve that bear's Oswald Veblen's name, and yet his influence and vision left a lasting mark in Princeton and beyond, across a broad range of pursuits.

One of the documents on display provides a succinct summary.
Veblen brought to Princeton elements of his bucolic midwest upbringing and his family's European roots, made manifest in his efforts to consolidate land for Herrontown Woods and the Institute Woods, and his influence in improving U.S. academic standards to better compete with European universities dominant at the time.

Nature for him was a place for both physical work and intellectual contemplation. His environmental interest was both outdoor and indoor--preserving forests while also designing innovative interior spaces such as Old Fine Hall (now Jones Hall) that set a new precedent for mathematical accommodations and later served as an initial base for the Institute.

From the exhibit's materials: "With a passion for the outdoors and physical labor, Veblen often brought colleagues with him on trips to the forest to chop wood and was very involved in the construction of the Veblens' Princeton residences on Battle Road and in Herrontown Woods."

The Veblen House in Herrontown Woods reflects these twin legacies, with its European touches and bucolic setting.

The influence of mathematicians on those who follow is actually tracked and, not surprisingly, quantified. As stated in the exhibit, "The Mathematics Genealogy Project credits Veblen with 8,495 descendants, a number that is especially impressive given that he served as the formal advisor to very few students after he moved to the Institute in 1932."

In another quote from the exhibit, "Essentially all of the (Institute's) early School of Mathematics Faculty--Albert Einstein, Hermann Weyl, James Alexander, von Neumann, Marston Morse -- derived from suggestions from Veblen.

The exhibit at the Institute continues at least through mid-April.

Veblen Chapter in Turing's Cathedral

Sections of George Dyson's book on early computer development at the Institute for Advanced Study, including portions of the third chapter entitled "The Veblen Circle", can now be accessed online via Google Books. Dyson spent, if I have the story right, ten years researching and writing the book, including a year at the Institute going through the archives. The chapter tracks Oswald Veblen from his birth in Iowa through his college years (with time out for a trip down the Iowa and Mississippi in the style of Huckleberry Finn), to his transformative career based in Princeton, including the key support he provided to John von Neumann's development at the Institute of one of the world's first computers.