Monday, August 7, 2017

Princeton to Take Ownership of Herrontown Woods and Veblen House


Today is a special day. It's my younger daughter's birthday, but from now on, August 7 will also be remembered as the day Mercer County announced an agreement to transfer Herrontown Woods and the Veblen buildings to the town of Princeton. Town council, responding to a groundswell of support for saving the Veblen House, has agreed to take ownership of the house, cottage and other structures, along with the 142 acres of preserved Princeton ridge forest, and will work out a lease arrangement with our nonprofit.

The Friends of Herrontown Woods got a green light four years ago to restore the trail system and habitat. Our success at making the preserve welcoming to hikers, along with the tremendous support people have shown for our work, has convinced town council to give us a chance to repair and repurpose the buildings as well.


The Veblens donated Herrontown Woods in 1957, as a place "where you can get away from cars and just walk and sit." Now, after a ten year effort to gain recognition for the value of the buildings, we will develop an agreement with Princeton that will allow us to honor the other part of the Veblen's legacy--buildings that can serve as a gathering place, complementary to the open space that surrounds them.

At this turning point, we feel great gratitude to all of our supporters who spoke out when demolition seemed imminent, and to the mayor and town council for their positive intervention. Now, finally, we can look forward to putting these well-crafted buildings on a positive trajectory, and making them a great asset for the Princeton community.

Note: The youthfulness of my daughter in the first photo attests to how long we've been working to reach this point. I first came upon Veblen House ten years ago, while doing plant inventories in Princeton's nature preserves.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Happy Birthday, Christine Paschall Davis Stuart

There are many paths that lead to and from the Veblen House and cottage in Herrontown Woods. Some are literally paths in the woods. Many of those paths had become overgrown until volunteers with the Friends of Herrontown Woods rediscovered and cleared their routes. Others are historical paths--lines of meaning that can be pieced back together through online research of the people who once lived there. There are the buildings themselves, each of which has a story behind it, as yet not fully known, and the Veblens, who left such a profound mark on Princeton and the world.

This story, however, is one of many to tell about the prosperous Whiton-Stuart family that brought the house to Princeton in the 1930s.  The story takes us from the spring waters of south central Tennessee to the highest levels of the Wilson and Roosevelt administrations, and the decades-long efforts of Norman H. Davis to prevent the Second World War.

July 29 this year would be Christine's 112th birthday, Christine being the first wife of Robert Whiton-Stuart, son of the builders and first occupants of what later would become known as the Veblen House.


Like Robert's mother, Mary Marshall Ogden, Christine had southern roots. Christine Paschall Davis was born July 29, 1905 in a town in south central Tennessee called Tullahoma, known for the waters there that bubble generously from the ground. In the 1850s, the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad was routed to pass by the springs, so that steam engines could fill up their tenders with the dependable spring water. Tullahoma later served as the headquarters for the Confederate army in Tennessee in 1863. The town's recovery after the Civil War was aided partly by the railroad line, partly by Tullahoma's educational institutions, which were exceptional for the region. It was likely also those educational institutions that brought Christine's future parents together.

Christine's grandfather, McClin H. Davis, had prospered in the distilling business, having perfected the recipe for Cascade Whiskey, later known as George Dickel. Though she spent her summers in Tullahoma, Christine graduated from the Milton Academy, a boarding school in Massachusetts that dates back to 1798. After attending Vassar College and graduating from the Presbyterian Hospital nursing school, she worked for a time at the Manhattan Eye, Ear, and Throat Hospital on east 64th St.

As with others who figured in the lives of the Whiton-Stuarts, Christine's name acquires more and more significance with time and research. Her ancestry has deep roots in America. One of her father's ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War. She's listed in a book as descendent #1144 of Jackson M. Yancey and Elizabeth B. Goode, his wife, though it's not yet clear who Mr. Yancey was, to have had his descendants so well researched. Nor is it yet clear whether the Paschall family of Christine's mother has notable history.

The name Davis, however, is best known through the career of her father Norman Hezekiah Davis, who would play significant roles in the Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt administrations. Before entering public life, Davis was a successful businessman. He briefly ran the distillery business, then took advantage of family connections to do business in Cuba. By 1918, at age 40, he had made a million dollars in Cuban banking and Cuban sugar. Remarkably, and it's not yet clear what the prompt or precedent might have been, at that young age he retired from business and devoted himself to public service. Serving Wilson as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, then as Undersecretary of State, Davis would become highly involved in seeking peaceful solutions to international tensions in the years between the World Wars. Briefly serving as Wilson's secretary of state, he likely would have gained that position in FDR's administration, if not for his close association with J. Pierpont Morgan. Instead, he served as a close advisor of FDR's secretary of state, and played an often parallel role as FDR's "ambassador at large". Later, FDR appointed Davis the national chairman of the Red Cross during the very demanding years of World War II.

Norman Davis's world view appears prescient, and relevant to our day. He spoke out against harsh economic punishment of nations defeated in WWI, asserting that steep tariffs and other forms of "economic warfare" were as destructive as a conflict of arms. He warned that economic punishment of Germany would cause resentment in that nation. History proved this warning correct, as Hitler later exploited that resentment to gain power. Through the 1920s, Davis criticized isolationist, protectionist policies that sound reminiscent of those being proposed today, almost a century later. The U.S. absence from the League of Nations was as conspicuous back then as the president's departure from the Paris climate accord is today. "America First" was a slogan as current then as now. Davis argued that a policy of independence instead of international cooperation was promoting nationalist tendencies that could lead to another world war. The U.S., he believed, needed to actively exercise its moral and political influence in the world.


Christine and Robert married in 1937, when her father was ambassador-at-large for FDR, and world tensions were escalating. Robert's parents, the Whiton-Stuarts, were living in Princeton at the time, presumably much more buffered from world events. It's not at all clear how Christine and Robert met. The wedding photo appeared in newspapers all across the country, as well as in Life Magazine. They were married at 5pm, March 23, 1937, by Rev. Elmore McKee, rector of St. George's Church at the Davis home on E. 79th St. "Christine will wear the ivory satin gown which her three sisters, Mrs. John Fennelly, Mrs John C. Potter, and Mrs. J Sterling Getchell, wore, and a Juliet cap with a veil. Her flowers will be white narcissi." The rector's church, by the way, was once known as "Morgan's church". J. Pierpont Morgan was its most influential parishioner, to whose company Norman Davis had close ties.


President Roosevelt's mother, the formidable mother-in-law of Eleanor Roosevelt, attended. The marriage date had been pushed forward when Norman Davis was called to Europe for meetings about the growing tensions there.

Perhaps the hasty rescheduling explains why the only attendant to the bride and groom was Lawrence M.C. Smith, as best man. Again, an internet search opens up another world of significance and meaning. Smith and his wife, Eleanor Houston, had an extraordinary life as "collectors, conservationists, environmentalists, farmers, philanthropists, and preservationists." Like the Whiton-Stuarts, they were "old money", their lineage dating back to the days of William Penn. Eleanor's father developed the Chestnut Hill area of Philadelphia. She was inspired by writer Louis Bromfield's organic farming experiments at Malabar Farm (an important book for me as well, in my formative years), and was on the board of governors for the Nature Conservancy. She and her husband founded a classical radio station in Philadelphia, and raised organic beef on their Wolfe's Neck Farm in Freeport, Maine. Much of the property they acquired, including an island, was later donated for preservation. The Smiths' philosophy--"At some point you have to decide how to use your money to benefit society."--is very much the credo by which the Veblens lived.

Christine's and Robert's marriage lasted less than ten years. Christine died in 1946 in Harkness Pavillion, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, after a long illness. Her mother, the former Miss Mackie Paschall, had died in 1942, and her father on July 2, 1944--both in their mid-60s. The reasons for early death in the family are not clear. Christine's grandfather, McLinn Davis, had died young, though his work perfecting the taste of whiskey could have had consequences. Norman Davis may have succumbed from the enormous stress of high level public service during the war years, compounded by the death two years earlier of his wife, who was his constant traveling companion. President Roosevelt, in a telegram to the family, said "He had worked far beyond his strength, and indeed was a casualty of war."

At the time of Christine's death, they were living at 1158 Fifth Ave. in New York City, and her husband Robert was described in the obit as "assistant to the president of the George A. Fuller Company, contractors." Their son, Robert P. Whiton Stuart Jr. of New York, has left no trace on the internet that we have yet to find. Clues for further research come from the obits:
Besides her husband, Mrs. Stuart is survived by a son, Robert P. Whiton Stuart Jr. of New York, three sisters, Mrs. Malcolm Smith of New York, Mrs. John F. Fennelly of Lake Forest, Ill. and Mrs. John Potter of Peterson Farms, Mount Kisco, N.Y. and four brothers, Macklin P. Davis and J. Pascall Davis of Nashville, Tenn., Goode P. Davis of Santa Barbara, Cal., and Norman P. Davis of Chappaqua, N.Y. Funeral services were held Saturday at 2:30p in Georges Chapel, 17th St, and Stuyvesant Square, New York City.
Some themes from this story continue in Robert's subsequent two marriages. From the springs of Tullahoma, where Christine was born, and Hot Sprints, where her father Norman Davis went as his health worsened, we'll head north to the cool, curative sulphurous waters of Sharon Springs, NY, which feature prominently in Robert's second marriage. And then there's alcohol, profited by if not directly imbibed. Whereas the whiskey distilling business contributed to the wealth of the Davises, the second family Robert married into achieved its wealth in the brewing business in pre-prohibition NY. Researching his third marriage, we've found another heroic in-law, still alive, devoting many decades not to saving the world from war, but to saving elephants and rhinos from extinction. 

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Happy 111th, Sylvia Jean Whiton-Stuart Hatch Turnure Olcott

Today is Sylvia Jean Whiton-Stuart’s 111th birthday. She being the daughter of the builders and original owners of what would later be called the Veblen House, it’s fitting to include here an account of what we know about Sylvia’s life.

Since first writing about her three years ago, I've researched backwards and forwards from Sylvia's birth on July 4, 1906, and in so doing have come closer to an answer to the question of why the House began its “life” in Morristown, NJ. Veblen House was owned and lived in by two families, the Whiton-Stuarts followed by the Veblens. Both Jesse Whiton-Stuart and Oswald Veblen loved buildings. Jesse prospered by buying and selling them in Manhattan. Oswald loved his own cottage and home, but also saw buildings and their design as an integral part of his vision for advancing scholarship in Princeton and more broadly in America.

Interestingly, the grandparents of Veblen, and the grandparents of Whiton-Stuart's wife, Mary Marshall Ogden, were both builders of houses--one built a series of them in Wisconsin and Minnesota, the other built one on a plantation in Mississippi. Research into the Veblen House's history may lead to a contrast between what it meant to build a home in the early 19th century in the North and South.

Exploring Sylvia's life takes us into many different worlds. While one set of great grandparents owned a plantation in antebellum Mississippi, she was born into the highest echelons of Manhattan society, with a pedigree that included some of the great movers and shakers in U.S. and NJ history. Her parents rubbed shoulders with leading philanthropists of New York City, then lived for part of her childhood out on a ranch in Arizona. Like her brother, she would marry three times. As a debutant and fodder for the gossip mills of the era's society pages, she eloped at 16 with a well-known writer, later married a stockbroker a month before the crash of 1929, then finally settled down to what looks like a quieter life with a lawyer.

Sylvia’s mother’s name is Mary Marshall Ogden, part of a long line of Ogdens extending back to the 17th century pilgrim, John Ogden, who, according to this link, “was one of the founders of the New Jersey Colony, and one of the first to settle in the original community of Elizabethtown,” around 1664.

Sylvia's mother was born in Natchez, Mississippi, which sounded like a strange place for a future Manhattan aristocrat to start out. For lack of knowledge--perhaps it's an uninformed northerner's stereotype--I imagined a family of modest means, torpid from the heat in a dusty town surrounded by flat expanses of woods. Turns out that Natchez is perched strategically on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, and for two centuries prospered as a pivotal center of trade in the region. The city is one of the earliest European settlements in the lower Mississippi, having celebrated its tricentennial in 2016. It's one year older than the state of Mississippi, and two years older than New Orleans. The Natchez tribe, for which it is named, predated the Europeans by a millennium. Sylvia's great grandfather, Elias Ogden, had moved down there after studying medicine in Morris County, NJ, built up a lucrative practice in Port Gibson, then married into the wealthy Routh family.

The move of a Whiton-Stuart ancestor from Morris County, NJ to Mississippi is a puzzle. Was it a move into a vastly different culture based on slave labor, or was Morris County, like Princeton, home to slave-owners as well? Ogden relatives may already have been established in Natchez. One notable Ogden from Natchez is Jennifer Ogden Combs, who has done film production for Woody Allen and Mississippi native Oprah Winfrey, and organized Natchez's tricentennial celebration.

Perhaps assisting the move of Elias Ogden from Morris County, the Natchez Trace, a major north/south trading route dating back to pre-colonial times, extends from Nashville down to Natchez. The Trace, named for the traces herds left behind, was originally a bison migration route, following ridges and passing by natural salt formations used by the bison like cattle use salt licks. For a period in U.S. history, travel on the Mississippi was downstream only. Settlers in the Ohio River basin would build flatboats to carry their wares down the Mississippi to Natchez, MS, where they'd sell them, along with the lumber from their boats, then return to the north by horse or foot along the Natchez Trace. Steamboats changed all that, with the power to travel upstream against the swift Mississippi current. The two-generation residency of Sylvia's ancestors in Natchez coincided with the golden age of steamboats.

Sylvia's great grandmother, Ann M. Lane, who was born a Routh, owned "one of the largest and finest plantations in that section of the country". Great grandfather Elias retired from medicine, built "an elegant residence called 'Kenilworth'", and cared for his wife's extensive estate until he died around age 43, in 1845.

One of their sons, John Routh Ogden, married Josephine E. Marshall, who is reportedly a descendent of the great Chief Justice John Marshall, a guiding force in shaping the U.S. justice system. Sylvia's mother-to-be was born to this couple in 1874, not long before the family left postwar Natchez to live in a town near New York City that no longer exists, called Bartow-on-the-Sound. There, Sylvia's grandfather worked as a banker in New York City.

Sylvia's parents, Jesse Paulmier Whiton-Stuart and Mary Marshall Ogden, were married in 1905. On April 21, 1908, a year and a half after Sylvia Jean was born, Jesse and Mary had her christened by Rev. Harris Ely Adriance. A newspaper article listed 13 of the guests, including Mrs. Kiliaen Van Rensselaer and Mrs. Augustus Julliard. The Van Rensselaers were a powerful political family in U.S. history, and Kiliaen Van Rensselaer was surely named after a distant ancestor, one of the founders of the Dutch West India Company in the early 1600s. Augustus Juilliard's estate funded what became the famous Juilliard School in New York. The lives of the Whiton-Stuarts are filled with associations of this sort.

Sylvia's story is to be continued, but here are a few elements. Her father, Jesse Whiton-Stuart, seems to have divided his itinerant life into decades. In the 1890s, after spending a year at Harvard, he traveled around the world. For the first decade of the 20th century, Jesse lived in Manhattan, selling high end real-estate. With two young children, he and his wife appear to have spent the next decade in Prescott, Arizona, where Jesse ran a cattle ranch on public land. By 1920, they had moved back east and were living in Morristown, NJ, perhaps to help ailing parents and involve their children in eastern social circles.

In 1922, at age 16, Sylvia eloped with Eric Stow Hatch. A newspaper describes their adventure this way:
On Sunday, according to dispatches received from Matawan, young Hatch and his bride, accompanied by Miles Vernon, appeared before Mayor Sutphin at Matawan with the request that he marry them. He declined to do so on the ground they had no New Jersey license and had not complied with the state law requiring a residence of forty-eight hours in the state prior to the ceremony.
That was quite discouraging to the trio, but they didn’t consider letting it stop them. They motored to Connecticut, apparently with the view of getting married there, it is said, but before long they were headed southward again, and finally arrived at Elkton, MD (where the ceremony was finally performed).
Son of a NY financier, Hatch became a writer for the New Yorker, and wrote some popular books, two of which were made into Disney movies, including My Man Godfrey. They divorced in 1928, having had one daughter, Eve (Evelyn) Hatch Holmes. Eve died in 2011, in New York, before we found out about her existence. Her obit says this about her:
She had a long and distinguished career in the world of fashion and was for many years fashion editor of Town and Country magazine. Eve was an active member of the Lawrence Beach Club, Rockaway Hunt Club and the Colonial Dames of America. To her galaxy of dear friends worldwide, Eve was especially loved for her loyalty, razor-sharp mind and rollicking wit.
A second marriage, poorly timed, was to Lawrence Turnure, a stockbroker, one month before the stock crash of 1929. The NY Sun reports a divorce in Reno less than a year later.

The Whiton-Stuarts reacted to the stock crash by moving to Princeton in the early 1930s, Jesse having brought a prefab house along from Morristown. In a potential tie to Veblen, Jesse's interest in mathematics may have drawn him to Princeton at a time when so many great mathematicians and physicists were arriving to work at the University and especially at the newly formed Institute.

Sylvia's whereabouts during that decade are unclear. The 1940 census had Sylvia married to Nelson Alcott and living on E 55th St in New York. (This appears to be the same Nelson Alcott that a 1925 city census describes as 35, a lawyer living in Brooklyn, Kings, in a house with 12 members, including what appear to be wife Mary Alcott, 35, daughter Leslie, 13, son William, 11, and servants from Ireland: Sadie Higgins, 30, Bessie Campbell, 28, Beatrice Farrell, 35, and Margaret Ryan, 34.) In some accounts, including her death certificate, her last name appears to be Olcott.

By 1941, as if ready for a new life in a new decade, Jesse had sold the Princeton house to the Veblens.

The rest of the story is sketchy. There are accounts of Sylvia's parents living variously in Greenwich, CT, and the luxury gated community of Tuxedo Park, NY. The 1940s were Jesse's last decade, ending in a house in San Luis Obispo, California, in 1950.

By 1957, Sylvia was living at 901 N. 6th Ave in Tucson, AZ, as documented in a suit she filed after an auto accident two blocks from her house, in which she suffered a concussion, fractured elbow and broken ribs. In 1964, Sylvia pops up as living with her husband in Mexico City, and traveling to Tucson to visit her mother. She died that year, July 21 in a Mexico City hospital, presumably at the age of 58 (the death certificate says 56), "paro respiratorio y cardiaco, colapso respiratorio periferiso" (congestive heart failure), and her mother died soon afterward. Playing the role of biographer, piecing together forgotten lives, I was surprised by a sadness when coming across news of their death. 

This is a preliminary sketch of her life, hastened together to honor her 111th birthday. Her death certificate stated her employment as "hogar", spanish for "home". Who she was, and what she did with her days--any curiosity about the world, any passions or causes, having carried the names of so many men through the years--remains a mystery.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Plant Workday at Veblen House This Sunday


Join us this Sunday, June 11 at 10am, before the day heats up, to pull garlic mustard before its seedpods have a chance to burst. We'll have some refreshments on hand, the better to socialize while snipping off the seedpods. Veblen House is up the gravel driveway across the street from 443 Herrontown Rd, or walk up from the main Herrontown Woods parking lot off of Snowden (map here).

This is Stage II of creating an ecological campus on the Veblen grounds. Stage I, largely complete, included the removal of wisteria, Japanese aralia, and the invasive brush that had obscured the historic features of the grounds.

Removal of garlic mustard will protect and free up space for new plantings, some of which are already in place.

For more on garlic mustard and the workday, there's a related post at PrincetonNatureNotes.org.




Here's a weed we'll allow to grow: moth mullein, a few fine specimens of which have popped up in the horse run next to the house.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Veblen's Role in John von Neumann's Career

Some of the richer, more colorful writing about the Veblens was uncovered recently via google. Many people who are unfamiliar with Oswald Veblen will recognize the name of John von Neumann, whom IAS director Robbert Dijkgraaf recently described as "perhaps an even greater genius than Einstein". Veblen had a keen eye for mathematical talent, and in both of these accounts is credited with bringing von Neumann to Princeton. Veblen also lent vital support to von Neumann's proposal to build one of the world's first computers at the Institute for Advanced study in the 1940s, when many scholars viewed such a machine as an intrusion.

In one, "The Martian's Daughter: A Memoir", von Neumann's daughter Marina Whitman describes the role the Veblens played, not only in furthering her father's career but also in her birth.





John L. Casti, in his book about the Institute for Advanced Study, "The One True Platonic Heaven", describes Oswald Veblen's support for von Neumann, first by getting him a position in the Princeton University Mathematics Department, soon thereafter advocating successfully for his appointment to the IAS, then supporting von Neumann's controversial project to develop a computer. Presumably, in a book that intermixes fiction and fact, the excerpt below sticks to the facts.


Two phrases in Casti's description catch the eye for anyone seeking to understand Veblen and his legacy. One is that Veblen "regarded von Neumann almost as the son he had never had." The Veblens had no children, and one interpretation of his enormous generosity towards young scholars is that he was channeling a nurturing instinct that had no familial outlet. The other is Casti's description of Veblen as "ultrarespectable and enormously influential". The more one learns about Veblen's legacy, the more one wonders at his invisibility--the multiple examples of how his name goes unmentioned, whether in the hallway history exhibit at the Institute, the literature offered to tourists at Old Fine Hall (now Jones Hall), or as founder of Princeton's open space movement. Even the house he donated for public use has been left boarded up and threatened with demolition, despite a nonprofit having been formed to repair it.

One theory, conjured early on in this research, was that he had a dark side that made people reluctant to give him credit for all the good he had done. This, it seems, is not the case. A closer look reveals a visionary, a man ahead of his time, who appears to have been on the right side of every issue, whether fighting early on against discrimination towards jews and African Americans, saving land from development, freeing scholars to pursue their research interests, or supporting the development of computers long before their potential was clear.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Memories of Elizabeth Veblen

J David Donahue, of Quantico, VA, left a wonderful comment on a previous post that I'd like to share more widely. It gives us some insight into the interior of the Veblen House and the last decade of Elizabeth's life there. Thanks so much to Mr. Donahue, who retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marines, for sharing these childhood memories. (Note: The photo is from the 1950s, and is the only one we have of the Veblen House interior when the Veblens were still living there.)

I was Mrs Veblen's paperboy for a year, 1965-1966. I never received payment from her but I did not care. She never could find cash and instead tried to pay me with old magazines or with little boxes of matches. I often sat with her in her living room and listened to her stories. At first I found her difficult to follow, to understand. Soon I looked at the pictures on the mantel. Although only 11 or 12 I easily recognized pictures of Woodrow Wilson with, as became evident, Mrs Veblen and her husband and others. She seemed to always have a fire going in the fireplace. The home had the aroma of a hunting lodge. I loved visiting with her when I made my bi-monthly visits to get paid. She was lonely and eager to have company. She was wonderful to talk to and I loved her voice and accent. I knew she must be a kind person. I hope the Veblen home is preserved. It is a remnant of an era long gone. Years later, after a career in the Marine Corps and federal law enforcement, I look back and wish I had more conversations with Mrs Veblen.

In email correspondence, Mr. Donahue shared more of his memories of Elizabeth and the house. This would have been five years after Oswald died, and gives a portrait of an elderly woman who had had a remarkable, active, highly social life, now with unaccustomed solitude and the challenges of aging.

She had two large, stuffed upholstered chairs in front of the fireplace. They faced the fireplace and its adjacent wall, not at a 90 degree angle, but closer to 45. She would sit in one and I in the other and she would tell stories. There was a dark oriental rug and bookshelves. There were lots of books in the room, and a small table next to her chair with a cup and saucer. She liked to drink hot tea and many times offered me tea. Her train of thought was hard to follow and she did not always speak clearly. She did most of the talking. She always had a shawl around her shoulders and she moved slowly, stooped over, and shuffling when she walked. 
Because there was always a fire in the fireplace, the home smelled like the hunting and fishing club my grandfather belonged to in the 1950s and 1960s. It smelled smoky, but was not overpowering. It was a good aroma. A warm, cozy aroma. I think that I mentioned the photos on the mantel above the fireplace. As an eleven year old, I had already read a lot of American history and recognized group pictures of Woodrow Wilson with a handful of other people. I remember asking Mrs. Veblen why pictures of the former president were on the mantel and she said that she and her husband knew Mr. Wilson. I was impressed! 
Prior to my middle school years I spent time in Herrontown Woods. My friends and I found several streams and flooded areas that provided good frog breeding grounds. I remember finding masses of frog eggs in several places where the water was deep and slow moving. We went home and read about frogs and returned a week or two later to find the tadpoles. It was a cool place to learn about nature. 
As a boy I liked to listen to my grandparents tell stories, so it was easy for me to sit with Mrs. Veblen. My visits sometimes lasted 20 or 30 minutes, certainly not the norm for a paperboy attempting to get paid. Usually, transactions with my other customers lasted a minute or two on a cold front porch or doorstep. After my one year as an eleven/twelve year old paperboy, I knew that the business world would not be my livelihood. Although she did not pay me, I did not have the heart to cut off her paper subscription. As a child, I did not know much about psychology or aging, but I could tell Mrs. Veblen was not totally coherent. I suppose now we might call it dementia. But I did recognize that she was kind and needed companionship. I knew that I spent way too much time at her home, but we both enjoyed each other's company.  
When the spring of my 7th grade year arrived, I had to quit the route. In 1966, the Trenton Times was an afternoon newspaper and I had to choose between playing catcher on the Princeton Middle School baseball team or being a paperboy. I chose baseball. Occasionally, in my secondary school and college years I wondered what happened to Mrs. Veblen. Then a few weeks ago I read in the Town Topics online about a group trying to save the Veblen home. From there I found the blog. I hope your group is able to preserve the homestead. It provides a connection to the past, to a special time in our country's intellectual history, and the history of Princeton.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

A Closer Look at the 2011 Architectural Report On Veblen House and Cottage

The fate of Veblen House now hangs in the balance, as the Friends of Herrontown Woods proposes to acquire and repair the buildings. The county has moved ahead with preliminary environmental studies, and has stated its intent to demolish the structures. One document it has used to rationalize demolition is "The Oswald and Elizabeth Veblen House and Cottage Conditions Assessment, prepared in 2011 by Mills and Schnoering Architects. A close look at the document reveals a number of basic errors, a negative bias, and a questionable approach to estimating costs.

The firm was paid $20,000 to develop a cost estimate for repairing the Veblen House and cottage. The report begins by reiterating research done in 2001 when the buildings were determined to be of national historic merit. There's a detailed history of ownership of the relevant parcels, along with some biographical information on Oswald Veblen's extraordinary career and the House's original owner, Jesse Paulmier Whiton-Stuart.

The county report then proceeds to detail the buildings' flaws. There is no positive language about such things as the high quality of construction or the custom craftsmanship inside the Veblen House. Though it offers some useful insights, the report makes some fundamental errors, misidentifying the materials used for interior walls and roof of the Veblen House. It estimates the cost of repairs by going room by room, rather than giving, for instance, one quote for painting the interior of the house.

The county has referred to the report, most recently in an April 25 document from the county administrator, and is using its cost estimates as a means of measuring the fitness of the Friends of Herrontown Woods for becoming the owner and caretaker of the buildings.

Members of FOHW, including a distinguished architect, have studied the county's architectural report and dug into its calculations. Along with the uniformly negative tone, the misidentification of basic elements like wall and roof material, and the room-by-room cost estimates, the report also boosts its cost estimate by adding a 50% "general conditions" and "concept design contingency". We also know that the cost of government projects tends to be higher, sometimes much higher, than when done by nongovernmental organizations.

To what extent, then, should we consider the Conditions Assessment to be the last word in determining actual cost of repairs? Below is a sampling of the report's cost estimates for repairing the Veblen House:

"Urgent Work"

$37,500 to replace wood shingle roof--Roof is not wood shingle. Most of it is metal, and is not leaking. The area covered by the roof is 1000 square feet.
$10,000 to install drainage system and waterproof foundation--Improved drainage around house should be done first, and may be sufficient
$5000 to install rat slab in basement--not necessarily advisable
$30,000 to mothball building with window covers and ventilation--FOHW would not mothball building but continue working
$36,500 in "general conditions" and "concept design contingency"--essentially, this assumes a 50% cost overrun.

"Necessary Work"

$36,800 to raise the house--Real problem is that gravel was piled next to the house, making the ground higher than original. Lowering ground to original level, and redirecting drainage away from house may be sufficient.
$71,000 to repair and paint exterior walls--seems high for replacing and painting some boards
$11,000 to repair exterior doors--also seems high for four doors
$26,500 to repair interior plaster walls and ceilings--Walls are not plaster. This does not include painting
$30,500 to repair windows and screens--Windows are very high quality. Some window sills and windowpanes need replacing. Other than that, they appear in good condition.
$10,000 to replace fixtures in bathrooms--Fixtures are from the period, in good condition, and don't need to be replaced. Two modern efficient toilets can be purchased for $400 total.
$26,500 to paint interior walls. Add to $26,500 for wall repairs, to equal $53,000 for interior walls.
$19,000 to refinish hardwood floors. For comparison, a ballpark figure offered for a 2000 square foot house by a local business was less than $10,000.
$183,000 for "general conditions" and "concept design contingency"--this is the 50% cost overrun added on to the already high estimates above.

The architectural study claims a total cost for "urgent" and "necessary" work of $600,000 for the Veblen House. Essentially, $220,000 of that is "general conditions" and "concept design contingency".

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge


Ever since finding Oswald Veblen's will, which stipulated that the Veblen House was to be a "museum and library", I've been collecting books to sit on the custom chestnut wood shelves in the living room when Mercer County finally allows our Friends of Herrontown Woods nonprofit to fix the house up. Two new additions were purchased last month at a talk by Robbert Dijkgraaf, the charismatic director of Institute for Advanced Study. With his rich baritone voice and well crafted slides, he gave a talk to a packed room at the Princeton Public Library on "The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge." The title comes from Institute founder Abraham Flexner's 1939 essay, for which Dijkgraaf has written a companion essay. During the talk Dijkgraaf made a compelling case for funding research "motivated solely by curiosity and without concern for applications."

During Q and A, I asked a leading question "How did the Institute end up in Princeton?" Dijkgraaf said "Oswald Veblen", his Dutch accent imbuing the name with consequence, as he pronounced the "Ve" syllable as "vay" rather than "veh". (There's been an ongoing question as to how Veblen pronounced his last name.) The funders of the Institute, the Bamberger family that started Macy's, had wanted the institute to be near Newark. When he read about the planned institute in the NY Times, Oswald Veblen contacted Flexner and suggested locating the institute in Princeton. Like many of Veblen's ideas, initial resistance finally yielded and the idea was realized. Veblen's ideas influenced the Institute in many other ways as well, and he became its first professor.


On a personal note, the importance of basic research--following one's own curiosity--was a matter close to my father's heart, as an astronomer at Yerkes Observatory, and it was good to hear Dijkgraaf present the case so beautifully and convincingly.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Hazelnuts and Pawpaws in the Ground


We had a good workday this past Sunday, with three board members and three additional volunteers. Here, board member Sally Tazelaar and Laura Strong are planting one of the 16 hazelnut plants rescued from a construction site nearby. Stan de Riel donated nine pawpaws grown from seed collected locally.

A strong theme in our restoration of the Veblen grounds is the use of donated materials, skills and time. The stakes next to each new tree, and the protective fencing to be added later, are also of the "found" variety.

Of course, by far the most important "found" material is the buildings on the site: the Veblen House, cottage, garage, barn and corncrib at the site. The Friends of Herrontown Woods has officially submitted its detailed proposal to acquire and repair these historic structures, at no cost to county or town.


The planting was done in an area cleared of invasive shrubs by board member Kurt Tazelaar. In the middle of this aerial photo from 1988 is a square open area. We're turning some of that area into an unusual native orchard for nut and fruit trees. The woodland opening will expand as the many ash trees growing nearby are lost to Emerald Ash Borer. Sunday's planting will help insure that diverse native species are in place to catch the additional sunlight as the forest thins.

Meanwhile, some daffodils that have long ornamented a spring drive up Snowden Lane are being rescued prior to pending construction. They will be planted in the Veblen field.

Thanks to all who lent their spirit, skill and energy to the workday.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Hazelnut, PawPaw, and Daffodil Planting this Sunday, April 2, 2-4pm


Thanks to a former tenant of the Veblen House, we have many photos that show the Veblen's garden in the 1950s, when both the famous mathematician and his wife were still alive. In this photo, the field to the left of the house is filled with daffodils, a particular passion of Elizabeth's. Though daffodils look lovely in a field, they tend to die out if the field gets mowed before the daffodil leaves have harvested enough solar energy to make blooms the next year. That's probably why the field today is nearly empty of daffodils.

This Sunday, April 2 from 2-4pm, you're invited to join us as we continue the ecological and historical restoration of the Veblen grounds. Two recent events make Sunday's workday auspicious. Two weeks ago the field in this photo was badly damaged by two trucks that drove down to the house and got stuck. All those deep ruts and bare ground, along with daffodils available for rescue on a construction site nearby, suggested an opportunity to bring back daffodils to the field. That should be a fun project for volunteers. If we plant daffodils in the ruts, we'll want to make sure the field doesn't get mowed this spring, or in springs to come.


Daffodils have more to do with restoring history than ecology. More of an ecological nature, we'll also plant some rescued local native hazelnuts and pawpaws in areas recently cleared of invasive brush near Veblen House. As with the pawpaws planted last year, we'll stake and protect the new plantings with wire fencing. The plantings are part of the envisioned "ecological campus" on the grounds surrounding the Veblen House and Cottage, on the east side of Herrontown Woods.




Here's another view of the field that Elizabeth Veblen had planted with daffodils. She grew up in York, England, where daffodils ornament the berms of castles.

You're encouraged to come whether you can do physical work or not. You can always lend moral support and hear the latest news. We'll have refreshments. Kids welcome. Park down the driveway across the street from 443 Herrontown Rd, or walk up from the Herrontown Woods main parking lot.

UPDATE ON OUR PROPOSAL TO ACQUIRE AND REPAIR THE VEBLEN HOUSE AND COTTAGE: Two months ago, the Friends of Herrontown Woods submitted an official proposal to Mercer County to acquire and restore the Veblen House and cottage, to create a Veblen Center and ecological campus on the surrounding grounds. In particular, the house is of sound structure with wonderful custom interior. Though we have made great progress restoring the grounds of Veblen House, the county has not as yet given us permission to begin repairs of the buildings. We have submitted the insurance we believe sufficient to handle any liability concerns, so that we can begin repairing the buildings as soon as possible. Having demonstrated our skill and dedication by caring for the 140 acre county-owned Herrontown Woods over the past four years, we are awaiting a county response to our proposal so that we can negotiate a means to put these historic structures on a positive trajectory.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Rescuing Hazelnuts for Planting at Veblen House


One theme running through the Veblen House project is the capacity to see potential where others do not. Beneath its rather dilapidated outer "skin" is a house that is solid and extremely well crafted, with an intact roof and solid foundation. People who look no further than the outer skin won't see the quality hidden underneath.

The same story can be told of a hazelnut tree that was cut down along Snowden last year when a lot was cleared for a new house. I had spotted the hazelnut tree years prior. Calling hazelnuts a tree is a stretch. They grow about fifteen feet high, and instead of a trunk they grow a dense cluster of stems from a gradually broadening base. I knew that, once cut down, it would sprout many new shoots from the root.

The photo looks like a pickaxe lying on plain ground, but I knew there was treasure to be had. I asked the owner of the new house if I could rescue the hazelnut and plant the root sprouts at Veblen House.

He agreed, and the harvest was 8 sprouts, plus 8 chunks of root that could sprout if planted.

We may invite the public to join us for this planting, most likely in a moist forest opening where the hazelnuts will get enough sky light to bear well. The opening was cleared of invasive shrubs over the winter by Friends of Princeton Open Space board member Kurt Tazelaar.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Veblen House Lawn Badly Damaged


The field next to the Veblen House was left badly damaged by ruts and a pile of road salt, most likely on March 22nd or early on the 23rd. Though it appeared at first to be a joy ride that turned into a quagmire, evidence suggests that a consultant working for Mercer County may have driven across the lawn down to the house, despite slippery spring conditions. The truck got stuck and then another truck may have been called in with a winch to pull it out. That truck may also have gotten stuck. Boards and the salt/sand mixture were apparently used to extricate one of the trucks from the mud. The cable across the driveway, protecting the Veblen site from unauthorized access, was also down.


A tag for a winch was found on the grass nearby.

On December 7, the Mercer County Parks Commission voted to spend $23,000 on "permitting support services" that are a preliminary step leading to demolition. This action came as a complete surprise to the Friends of Herrontown Woods (FOHW), the nonprofit that has been restoring and maintaining trails at Herrontown Woods for three years, at no cost to the town or county. The county is well aware of FOHW's desire to rehabilitate the Veblen House and farmstead so that they can be an asset to the community. Mercer County, which owns the buildings and land, has long wanted to demolish them and put up a plaque.

The preliminary move towards demolition put FOHW in high gear to complete its proposal to repair the buildings. On February 3rd, after intense work, the FOHW board submitted to the county a detailed proposal to acquire the buildings and use its own funding to put them to public use for educational programming about the extraordinary history and ecology of Herrontown Woods.

On February 16, FOHW followed up with a submission of all insurance documents, and requested permission to begin working on the buildings so that their enduring quality and potential can be clearly demonstrated to the community. The buildings have been boarded up since 1998, but both were very well made, and the Veblen House in particular is still solid, with roof and foundation intact.

FOHW also asked the county to suspend all further actions towards demolition. Despite repeated followup inquiries, FOHW has received no response. The ruts in the lawn and the downed gate may be a sign that the county has instead been spending money to move forward with its plans.

FOHW is seeking a positive solution for all the supporters of Veblen House and Herrontown Woods, for the community and for the county, which could save considerable money that would otherwise be spent on demolition of these unique historic structures.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

"Remembrance Day" Performance


One year ago, June Ballinger debuted her solo performance "Remembrance Day", about her mother's work in WWII England at Bletchley Park, where mathematician Alan Turing was leading the effort to decode the Nazi Enigma machine. Over the past year, June has worked with director Janice Goldberg to develop the one woman show further, including research on the math involved with code breaking.

Alas, I have been distracted and have not posted about her performance tonight, March 4 at 7:30 at Passage Theatre of the new version, which I hear is excellent. If you haven't checked out Passage Theatre, it's a gem, with some of the finest theater productions in the area.

The critical role women played in WWII mathematics and computer development is a recurring theme on this website, including an update at this post about women in my home town in Wisconsin who, according to Nobel Prize winner Chandrasekhar, calculated "immensely difficult mathematical equations entirely by long hand".

June tells me her mother "thought math was great fun ... she loved it." "There is a basic formula my mother and all folks working in the Newmanry had to understand: The formula for the Fish machine."

Wikipedia describes the Newmanry thus:
"The Newmanry was a section at Bletchley Park, the British codebreaking station during World War II. Its job was to develop and employ machine methods in Cryptanalysis of the Lorenz cipher. The Newmanry was named after its founder and head, Max Newman. It was responsible for the various Robinson machines and the ten Colossus computers."

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Math Writ Large in Hidden Figures


A friend likes to say that "all roads lead to Veblen House". On a hunch, I traced the mathematical road leading back from Katherine G. Johnson, one of three extraordinary black women mathematicians in the movie Hidden Figures, and sure enough, it led back in multiple ways to Oswald Veblen.

The movie itself is deeply moving and, despite the liberties it would appear to take for the sake of high drama, remarkably accurate and true to historical fact. Figuratively speaking, it sends its three main characters high into orbit, to shine in the sun, but not beyond the gravitational pull of earth.

All three main characters--Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson--overcome a host of obstacles facing women and blacks in 1960s Virginia to play major roles in the early days of the NASA space program and computer programming. We learn, among many things, that John Glenn refused to take that first American flight to orbit the earth until Katherine Johnson had verified the mathematics upon which the flight was based.

Oswald Veblen died in 1960, but he played a central role in developing the mathematical and computational world featured in the movie. Before there were machines called "computers", there were women called "computers" who had the patience and the smarts to do the myriad calculations required to compute trajectories. And before Alan Shepard could be the first American to soar into space in 1959, there needed to be a mathematician who could envision and accurately predict the full trajectory of his flight.

That mathematician was Katherine Johnson, and the mathematics was built on the ballistics calculations Veblen oversaw for the military at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in the first and second World Wars. Tracing Katherine G. Johnson's mathematical lineage involves finding out who her main teachers were, and who in turn taught her teachers, reaching back in time.

There's a particular passion for tracking professional lineage in mathematics, with a website devoted to the pursuit called the Mathematics Genealogy Project. Type in Oswald Veblen's name, and you find that, owing to his role as one of the "three key leaders" who "organized American mathematics" (according to Herman Goldstein), he has more than 11,000 mathematical descendants. No results came up for Katherine G. Johnson, presumably because she didn't pursue an academic career. Type in her professor at West Virginia State University, William Waldron Shieffelin Claytor--the third African American to receive a PhD in mathematics--and you find that his advisor was John Robert Kline at University of Pennsylvania.

Kline, in turn, was advised by Robert Lee Moore, who developed the "Moore method" of teaching, in which the students themselves present the material rather than being passive recipients of a lecture. Though Moore's views on race may have been influenced by his father, who fought as a Confederate in the Civil War and named his son after the Confederate general, the R.L. Moore teaching method appears to have benefitted mathematics students of all races. There's a scene in the movie in which the instructor hands Johnson the chalk and asks her to solve the problem on the blackboard in front of the class.

R.L. Moore's advisor at University of Chicago was Oswald Veblen, just before Veblen moved to Princeton in 1905. That makes Kathryn Johnson a fourth generation mathematical descendant of Veblen.
Update: An additional connection to Oswald Veblen comes through Johnson's main mentor at West Virginia State, W.W. Shieffelin Claytor, whose own brilliant career was tragically hampered by the racism he encountered. Claytor's teaching load at W. Virginia State prevented him from doing any research. Around the time that Katherine Johnson graduated (at age 18!), Veblen, who had fought long and hard to gain American mathematicians adequate time to do research, sought to bring Claytor to Princeton University, but the University did not accept "coloured persons". Four years later, Veblen offered Claytor a position at the Institute for Advanced Study, which was not subject to the university's exclusions based on race. But by that time, Claytor had apparently grown disillusioned. He "turned down the offer saying that he did not want to be a guinea pig." The heartbreaking story is told in this online biography.
Some favorite scenes in Hidden Figures are of Johnson as a young girl, feeling the excitement of math within her as she walked down a sidewalk. Mathematics is built into the incremental act of walking--something I felt as a kid counting the steps it took to cross a grassy field coming home from school--and may have been part of Veblen's love of walks in nature, an experience he insured for Princetonians by donating Herrontown Woods as Princeton's first nature preserve. In another scene in the movie, Johnson realizes that what is needed for orbital flight was not new math, but very old math, in the form of Euler's method, from the 18th century. It's interesting to speculate on whether she might have learned Euler's method from the first African American to get a mathematics PhD, Elbert Frank Cox, whose work involved "generalized Euler polynomials" and who taught at West Virginia State until 1929. The dramatic entrance of an IBM computer midway in the movie, filling a whole room and threatening the future of the female computers, brought back childhood memories of a similar machine my father used in the attic of Yerkes Observatory.

The movie caused some tearing up, particularly towards the end. Ever since experiencing that inner earthquake of my father dying--he turned his Ohio farmboy talent for mathematics into a prominent career in astronomy--there's been a channel within, geologic in feeling, through which emotion can rise to the eyes, unfettered. It's genuine emotion, but can also be manipulated to rise up by the tricks movies use to trigger a desired emotional response. To be prone to manipulation by a movie's artifice is both disconcerting and comforting. In Hidden Figures the tearing up is not only a product of the customary movie manipulation but also the deep message of equality that we carried home from the movie theater. Afterwards, researching the movie's accuracy, away from Hollywood's manipulations, the articles were as moving as the film. Here are a few, from HistoryVsHollywood, PopularMechanics, and LATimes.

Permeating the movie is the urgency of the race to space. That national urgency drove an "all hands on deck" attitude that opened cracks in oppressive views of race and gender just wide enough for the brilliance of these black women to rise, and in turn influence a nation's trajectory. Particularly in our time, when government is in the grips of a solutions-averse anti-intellectualism, it is stirring to see depicted an era when science, math and courage came together to achieve great things. Other daunting challenges, climate change being foremost, await a similar integration of national character and purpose, with similar opportunities to break through the artificial barriers that divide all nations and peoples.


Update: At the Academy Awards, Katherine Johnson had her moment in the bright lights on stage, surrounded by the three stars of the movie.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Veblen House History: The Wives of Robert Whiton-Stuart

Adding to the historic importance and interest of Veblen House--a 1920s prefab with unique custom elements inside and out--are the colorful and consequential lives of those who lived there. The process of internet research is a bit like fishing. You cast some keywords out into cyberspace and see what old newsclippings come back. Below is a sampling.

Jesse Paulmier Whiton-Stuart and Mary Marshall Ogden, the couple that brought what would later be called the Veblen House to Princeton, had two children, Robert and Sylvia. Research on Sylvia's three marriages beyond a preliminary post is on pause for the moment. Initial searches yielded little about Robert's life, but though we still know little about Robert himself, recent research has revealed remarkable connections, including with some extraordinary conservationists.

Robert was born in Manhattan on Dec. 16, 1909, and grew up there, except for a few years in Prescott, Arizona, when father Jesse decided he'd rather run a cattle ranch than sell real estate in Manhattan. (Though he grew up in Manhattan, Jesse was as much an avid outdoorsman as Oswald Veblen.) Educated in Switzerland and at Cambridge University, England, son Robert chose a career related to his father's, as a construction engineer based in NY.


During the time when his parents were living here in Princeton, Robert married Christine Paschall Davis, daughter of Franklin D. Roosevelt's ambassador-at-large, Norman H. Davis.


FDR's mother attended the wedding, March 23, 1937, at the Davis home on East 79th St.. Norman H. Davis had also been prominent in the Woodrow Wilson administration, serving as assistant secretary of the treasury and undersecretary of state. He was also at some point national chairman of the Red Cross.

Lawrence M.C. Smith of Washington, DC, presumably a very close friend of Robert's, was the best man, and a quick internet search reveals that he and his wife, Eleanor Houston, had an extraordinary life as "collectors, conservationists, environmentalists, farmers, philanthropists, and preservationists." Like the Whiton-Stuarts, they were "old money", their lineage dating back to the days of William Penn. Eleanor's father developed the Chestnut Hill area of Philadelphia. She was inspired by Louis Bromfield's organic farming experiments at Malabar Farm (an important book for me as well, in my formative years), and was on the board of governors for the Nature Conservancy. She and her husband founded a classical radio station in Philadelphia, and raised organic beef on their Wolfe's Neck Farm in Freeport, Maine. Much of the property they acquired, including an island, was later donated for preservation. The Smiths' philosophy--"At some point you have to decide how to use your money to benefit society."--is very much the credo by which the Veblens lived. 

Christine died in 1946 in Harkness Pavillion, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, after a long illness, less than ten years after they were married. Her mother, the former Miss Mackie Paschall, died in 1942, and her father in 1944.This quote from a hometown newspaper is all we know thus far of what she did during her life.
Born in Tullahoma, Tenn. the former Miss Christine Paschall Davis, was a summer resident of this town more than 30 years. She was graduated from Milton Academy, attended Vassar College and was graduated from the Presbyterian Hospital nursing school. For a time she was a nurse at the Manhattan Eye, Ear, and Throat Hospital.
They had a son, Robert P. Whiton Stuart Jr. of New York.

At the time of Christine's death, Robert was assistant to the president of the George A Fuller Company, contractors, a company that built Penn Station, the NY Times building, and other landmarks. In wikipedia, George A. Fuller is described as "an architect often credited as being the "inventor" of modern skyscrapers and the modern contracting system."

Thus far, the most interesting thing we know about Robert is the sort of company he kept. His two additional marriages, to Bertha Clausen and Edwina Atwell Martin, continue this theme of marrying into extraordinary families. Bertha was from a prominent family of NY brewers. Her father owned an estate with a breathtaking view of the Mohawk River valley in a former hop-growing area of upstate NY, near the curative sulphur springs of Sharon Springs--a small town with a rich history. Edwina's story leads back to the extraordinary wealth of Andrew Carnegie's partner, Henry Phipps, as well as a grandfather whose firm built Rockefeller Center and the Lincoln Tunnel, and forward to her son's life-long devotion to conservation in Africa. Edwina's son, step-son of Robert Whiton-Stuart, is Esmond Bradley Martin, Jr., a geographer who has dedicated his life to saving elephants and rhinos from extinction.

To be continued ...

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

News Flash: Nature is a Geometer

A geometer, for those of us who live most of our lives without encountering the word, is a mathematician particularly skilled in geometry, which is what Oswald Veblen was. Because of his generosity and devotion to mathematics, every three years a geometer receives the Veblen Prize from the American Mathematical Society "for notable research in geometry or topology." And because of the Veblens' generosity and love of nature, people in Princeton and from far and wide get to take a walk in Herrontown Woods. A couple days ago, we were out there discussing trail work when a couple came by with a beautiful miniature collie. They were on their way from Boston to D.C. and had chosen Herrontown Woods as a midway rest stop for walking their dog because they were able to find our map online. Stories like that make us feel like the Friends of Herrontown Woods is on the right track.

But this post is about recent backyard research, where a cold night frequently leaves finely crafted geometric renderings in a 35 gallon black tub that catches rainwater from the roof.



Polygons, triangles and squares, oh my. How water molecules can climb up to make these ridges I haven't a clue, but the answer when it comes will only deepen our sense of wonder at nature's creative powers. Nor is it clear why the water in the black tub is more talented than other backyard miniponds. Maybe the shape of the tub affects how the water freezes, or minerals from the roof play a role in how the crystals form. In any case, it's like having a child genius who brings home a brilliant piece of artwork from pre-school every day.

The forms in the lower right of this photo have the shape of beautifully cut precious stones. Here's a wish: May we keep the earth cool enough that this wondrous geometer can play, day after winter's day, far, far into the future.

UPDATE: Writing this post brought back memories of a visit to the Exploratorium in San Francisco a long time ago, and an exhibit in which a sheet of cooled water froze in a flash. The speed with which crystals spread was surprising, though it makes sense, given how fast chemical reactions flash through our bodies to form thoughts and actions. I called the Exploratorium to ask for a video of the phenomenon, and they quickly responded. The exhibit is called Watch Water Freeze, and the inventor demonstrates the secret of the flashfreeze--supercooled water--at 7:35 in this video. Nature's combination of craftsmanship and speed is deceptive. The crystals in the photos above appear finely wrought, but it's possible they, too, were crafted in an instant.

And might our creative process work the same way, that the mind becomes super-saturated with thoughts and experience, until some catalyzing moment arrives when all crystalizes in a flash of insight?