Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Oswald Veblen's Legacy Celebrated in Princeton University's 2020 State of the University Report

(This is a repost from the companion site, FOHW.org, Friends of Herrontown Woods)

2020 is looking like a good year for Oswald Veblen, whose 140th birthday we'll be celebrating in June. For those who like numbers, mathematicians or not, Veblen's life and career are framed by round numbers. He was born in 1880, began graduate work in mathematics in 1900, became emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in 1950, and died at his Brookin, Maine cottage in 1960.


Some deeply gratifying news came recently in the form of Princeton University's annual State of the University letter, in which President Eisgruber puts the legacy of Oswald Veblen front and center in a moving discourse on "the values and qualities that define us as a university."

Eisgruber describes Veblen as "a faculty member with tremendous vision and constructive energy" who "probably did as much as anyone to reform and improve this University." That's some high praise.

As Princeton University embarks on a new round of building, President Eisgruber pointed to Veblen's visionary role nearly a century ago:

"At a time when many Princeton professors had no offices and worked from home, Veblen imagined something novel: a building dedicated to mathematics and designed to generate intellectual community and exchange."

"Oswald Veblen understood that people are the heart and soul of a great university, and he also understood that thoughtfully designed buildings can stimulate the collaborations, activity, insights, and friendships that animate a scholarly community. His vision for the old Fine Hall, and its timely completion, attracted brilliant thinkers to Princeton and forged a scholarly legacy that remains vibrant almost a century later."
Citing Elyse Graham's articles in the Princeton Alumni Weekly about Veblen, the State of the University report also praises "Veblen's humanitarian courage," demonstrated through his early efforts to aid the careers of brilliant women and African American mathematicians, and his
"critical role in rescuing Jewish scholars from persecution in Europe. Veblen worked with the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars to accommodate refugees at Princeton and elsewhere in the country. The scholars whom Veblen helped bring to Princeton included professors of mathematics, physics, economics, and art history."
The Friends of Herrontown Woods first heard that Veblen would be featured in the President's report a couple weeks prior, when the university's science writer contacted us to ask permission to use some of the photos on our VeblenHouse.org website. As our nonprofit begins repairs on the long-neglected Veblen House and Cottage in Herrontown Woods, we are tremendously heartened to witness the ongoing rediscovery of Oswald Veblen's quietly extraordinary legacy, beginning with writings and presentations by George Dyson and others at the Turing Centennial Conference in 2012, articles by Alyse Graham in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, and now this wonderful tribute to Veblen woven into President Eisgruber's State of the University letter.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

A Dry Stone Waller Visits Veblen House


It was an improbable chain of events that brought a dry stone waller to Veblen House. First, the local Town Topics newspaper published a new year's day article about our latest progress in saving Veblen House. Of the photos I sent them, they chose this one--featuring the circular stone horserun with the Veblen House in the background--to publish with the article. Little did we know how and where that article might travel.

Ten days later, a message came via our Friends of Herrontown Woods website:
"Hello!! I am writing to you because a friend of mine from the Dry Stone Walling Association of Canada sent me a link to your article in the Town Topics about rebuilding the walls at the Veblen House. I am a dry stone waller from Vermont. The irony is that I grew up in Princeton as a child (ages 5 to 18) and lived down the street from Herrontown Woods!! I Went to Riverside School and Herrontown was just a bike ride away for me and my friends. Luckily we grew up without electronic devices and riding your bike and exploring the woods (and Lake Carnegie) was what we did. In fact, I have done the creek walk that connects Herrontown to Carnegie. These explorations of the woods was what eventually lead me to Vermont. 
I am now a dry stone waller here in Vermont and travel all over for work and dry stone festivals. I am also a teacher at The Stone Trust here in Dummerston, Vermont. Please check out the website. You will see that we are an educational center teaching the art and craft of dry stone walling. I would love to help with the restoration of the walls at the Veblen House. Their are many ways to go about restoring old walls and I would could help if you're interested. Have you thought about a workshop? I have been a part of many public workshops that people learn the craft and as walls get rebuilt. 
Have a great day and stay warm.
Torben Larsen
Windham Growers Inc. 
Herrontown Woods is most strikingly a combination of trees, rocks, and water. In my environmental work I've encountered organizations focused on trees or water, but never stones. At this point, I wasn't sure whether the walls he was talking about were the foundation walls for the buildings or the many rock walls in the woods left from a past agricultural era. A look at The Stone Trust website, whose motto is "In stones we trust," clarified what a dry stone waller does. The website opens up a new world where assemblages of stones--functional or fanciful--are juxtaposed with assemblages of people. Their faces glow with pride and satisfaction that seems rooted in the outdoor walls they have just constructed. Through collective action, the people become part of something larger than themselves, as do the stones that become part of a lovely stone wall. The way the photos are composed, the people connect to something elemental, while the stones seem to gain in humanity. Lately I've been musing that there is something soulful in wood that rubs off on those who work with it. Might stones have a gift to impart to us as well?


I contacted Torben, and a week or so later when he happened to be in NJ he came by for a visit. Soon he was explaining the logic of a stone wall. Gravity and friction are key to building a wall that will last 500 years. Stack "one on two," which is to say place each rock so that it straddles two rocks below. That way, part of its weight will rest on each of the two rocks. "One on three" is a weaker arrangement, because one of the three rocks underneath will be loose.

And be sure to "break your seams." Some areas of the horserun have running seams. The photo shows a couple running seams on the left, where a vertical line runs down through multiple layers of stone. Resting each stone on two stones below breaks the seams. Still, the horserun has endured pretty well, despite breaking some of the rules.

Each country has its own style of walling. I explained that the horserun was reportedly built by a German immigrant back in the 1930s, though it's unclear if he had brought any German stone-building heritage with him when he came to the States.


Taking a closer look at the horserun, I noticed its core is made up of smaller stones embraced by the larger stones lining the inner and outer faces of the wall. Torben called this "hearting."





Maybe all the king's horses and all the king's men will have more luck repairing this "check end" than they had with Humpty Dumpty. The sheer weight of the stones will pose a challenge, though. Torben said that this particular kind of stone weighs 175 pounds per cubic foot. He had some ideas about how the stones were originally lifted into place, but that didn't make it into my notes.


We then took a walk through Herrontown Woods, which surely is a kind of heaven for Torben, with all its boulders. While I tend to see the boulders as nature's artwork not to be disturbed, each with distinct shape and pattern of moss and lichen, Torben was seeing the rocks more as they must have been viewed in the 19th or early 20th centuries,

when the diabase boulders were being quarried for stone. One area of Herrontown Woods is pock-marked with the holes where boulders once stood, before they were split into pieces and carted away for various uses.


This block of stone must have marked the end of the quarry era, as it was never taken. Torben called the series of holes along the cracks "feather and wedging."

To be a stone waller is to be part of a network few of us have ever heard of. Torben is certified in Britain, and travels there periodically for stone walling events. Every now and then a gathering of rock wallers will do what Torben calls a "crazy build," like a "30 foot bridge, dry-laid," which is to say it's a bridge with a 30 foot span and nothing holding the stones together other than gravity and friction. He mentioned Sunny Wieler of Ireland, who builds intricate stone sculptures. We will never look at a stone wall the same way again.

Hopefully, Torben will return to Princeton to conduct a workshop, much like the ones The Stone Trust leads in Vermont.

After Torben headed back to his stone walling job elsewhere in NJ, I was still curious about the woman in Canada who came across the Town Topics article and is responsible for pointing Torben in our direction. Andrea Cross wrote a nice email back from her well-connected island in Lake Ontario:
"Great to hear from you!
I came across the article during the course of my daily business research which is focused on cultural heritage projects around the world. It was an active google search not an alert. 
You are right the story about the connections is pretty amazing.
Here I am living and working from an island in Lake Ontario and I come across your project. What moved me to take a second look was the lovely photograph with the dry stone structure in the foreground that was crying out to me to be restored!

I was professionally interested in your group’s efforts to create an interpretive or visitor center. However the stones spoke to me and it was an exciting “aha” moment...I am assuming Torben told you that I am active in the Dry Stone Walling Association of Canada and helping organize many international festivals which is how I met Torben.

The article was especially well written compared with many I come across. I was moved and inspired by the success and drive of your group.
I thought of Torben and the Stone Trust in Vermont - maybe they might take on the project for you.
On a more personal note my father, who recently passed away at the age of 93, had a love of mathematics and would have been excited to hear of the connection.

In his career he worked at the Microwave Physics Lab in Palo Alto when they were developing laser technology and was one of three people from his company sent to launch one of the successful Moon Bounce operations that moved communications forward in a big way. Mathematics being key.
Anyway....All this is to say I am cheering you on !!

I had mentioned to Torben, if I may help in any way let me know." 
Cheers
Andrea Cross
Amherst Island

Monday, February 3, 2020

Oswald Veblen's Early Days in Iowa

On this day, when Iowa once again exercises its outsized influence on the fate of presidential candidates, here's some research on how Oswald Veblen's childhood in Iowa may have influenced his values and his life. In a career packed with accomplishments, he was driven by multiple passions--for mathematics of course, and the advancement of American academia generally, but also for land and for buildings that could bring people together. Having achieved a position of influence, he used it to help countless others advance their careers, apparently unburdened by the racial and gender prejudices common in his time. He used it also to advance institutions and technology, most notably early steps in the development of computers.

Veblen was born and came of age as the country itself was coming of age, in that 30 year span called the Gilded Age, marked by industrialization and growth at the end of the 19th century. By age 20, neatly coinciding with the dawn of the 20th century and reflecting the urgency of the era, he had already gained two B.A. degrees, and was headed to Chicago for graduate work.

Most biographical writings about Veblen dispense with his early years in a paragraph or two, but a trip back to his beginnings reveals how Iowa exercised an outsized influence on what Veblen would later achieve. His four years at what was then called the State University of Iowa would be particularly influential, but this post will focus on the landscapes and buildings that framed his pre-college years, with music providing a brief meander, like the Iowa River he looked out upon from the windows of his childhood home.

It's good to start with a question or two. What, for instance, drove Veblen, a mathematics professor at Princeton, to insist on "supervising every last detail of construction" of Old Fine Hall, and what drove him to overcome opposition and convince the Institute for Advanced Study to acquire 600 acres that would ultimately become the Institute Woods? The degree of his passion for land and buildings is well expressed by Abraham Flexner: "The prospect of a visit from an architect usually cost Professor Veblen a day's work and a night's sleep ... He is a most excellent person, but the word 'building' or 'farm' has an intoxicating effect upon him."

Here, then, are some seeds from which a life grew.

Iowa, for most people, probably conjures images of a flat or gently rolling land of crowded cornstalks and scattered farmers whose opinions loom large every four years when presidential candidates come a'calling. Less known is another Iowa, of "abundant rock outcroppings," of "deep, narrow valleys containing cool, fast-flowing streams" and "unexpectedly scenic landscapes." Tucked into what's been called the "Switzerland of Iowa", a geologic region known as the Paleozoic Plateau at the extreme northeastern corner of the state (the red area on the map), is a town named Decorah, where Oswald Veblen was born.

By the time Oswald arrived on the scene in 1880, his father Andrew had received a masters degree from Carlton College in Minnesota, and had moved to Decorah to teach physics and english at Luther College. Andrew had married Kirsti Hougen, who had grown up near the Valdres Valley in Norway from which Andrew's parents had immigrated a generation earlier. Oswald, then, was the first child born into a family with deep Norwegian roots, living at the time in the center of Norwegian immigrant culture in America. Decorah is not only the home of Luther College, conceived by Norwegian Lutherans in 1857, but also the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, with the most extensive collection of Norwegian-American artifacts in the world.

Along with the forests, abundant water and beauty that must have attracted Norwegians to that part of Iowa, a few other parallels can be drawn between where Oswald was born and the Princeton Ridge where he lived the last 20 years of his life. Like northeastern Iowa's bluff country, Herrontown Woods escaped the flattening effect of the glaciers, and has rock outcroppings and abundant springs. In their wills, the Veblens left behind some artifacts to be part of a "museum and library" at Veblen House.

When I mentioned Decorah to some friends who live in Iowa City, they made the astonishing claim that The New World Symphony--one of my favorites--was composed there. How could a Czech composer end up in Iowa? On the other hand, how did a Czech composer manage to so aptly capture the spirit of America in a symphony?

What appears to be true, after some digging, is that Antonin Dvorak composed the symphony early in a three year stint in the U.S. beginning in 1892. One year in, on the advice of his secretary, a homesick Dvorak headed not back to Europe for a summer break, but instead traveled with his family to a Bohemian enclave in Iowa. There they spent the summer of 1893 in a town not far from Decorah named Spillville, where Dvorak found a home away from home among many Czech immigrants, and soaked up the sounds and vast spaces of the American midwest. One of the string quartets he composed while there includes the song of the scarlet tanager.

Dvorak's visit to the midwest coincided with a momentous time in American history, during which he could hear the sounds of Native American music, played by Iroquois Indians who lived just outside of town, and then travel to Chicago to witness the latest inventions at the Chicago World's Fair. All of this must have seeped into his composing of the New World Symphony, which he completed while living in Spillville.

This mix of the ancient and the modern must also have seeped into Oswald Veblen, by this time 13 and living in Iowa City just to the south. Oswald's family hadn't stayed long in Decorah. In 1881, when Oswald was one year old, his family moved to Baltimore, where his father received two years' training at Johns Hopkins University before taking a position as professor of mathematics and physics at the University of Iowa. Oswald would live in Iowa City for the next 16 years, gaining seven siblings and two degrees.





Fittingly, given Oswald's future as a visionary who loved buildings and nature, the family home in Iowa City had a view, standing atop Mill Hill--a long hill overlooking the Iowa River--the same hill where later would stand the famed Iowa Writers Workshop. The address of the Veblen home was 707 N. Dubuque St. Though we have yet to track down a photo, it was by all accounts an attractive house, surely substantial to house a family of ten.


Here's a description by Dan Campion, an Iowa City writer who I reached out to after seeing his letter in the U. of Chicago alumni magazine, calling for the preservation of Yerkes Observatory, where I grew up.
"The Veblen house must've been a showplace. The site overlooks a stretch of the Iowa River downstream (south) of a bight and about a third to a half a mile north of the center of campus."
Most of what we know about Oswald's childhood home comes from the newspaper columns of historian Irving Weber. By Weber's description, the house had a career of its own, hosting a progression of owners following the departure of the Veblens from Iowa City in 1906.


Weber writes: 
This had been the lovely La Place Bostwick home, and the tea room was called Wisteria because of the beautiful wisteria flowers, droopy clusters of showy, purple blooms on the front of the house. Interestingly, the house, located at the top of the long Dubuque Street hill, had been known as "The House of Mystery" (1908-1918) when Bostwick lived there and invested $25,000 for construction of the 40-by-60-foot laboratory building in back to artificially produce pearls, using clams. Two thousand clams were dredged from the Iowa River, just below the Coralville Dam, and were implanted with a tiny pellet of clam shell (as an irritant to start the pearl). Iowa River water was constantly pumped over the clams in the laboratory tank, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In four years, Bostwick reaped his first harvest of pearls--round, of good quality, weighing 10 grams. 
The "House of Mystery" has echoes of H.G. Wells' novels published only a decade prior, like The Invisible Man, in which a man secretly manipulates nature in a way no one else had ever imagined.

From 1925-26, while Elizabeth Veblen would have been hosting teas in Princeton and growing wisteria in her garden, Oswald's childhood home in Iowa City was busy being one of several Tea Houses in Iowa City operated by women during the Prohibition era. Soon thereafter the house was displaced by the Sigma Chi fraternity and reportedly moved in 1928 to another location, as yet unknown.

Another building that may have had a big effect on Oswald was the Grammar School, an impressive structure built in 1893 at the northeast corner of Van Buren and Jefferson streets. Such edifices must have loomed large in the predominantly rural landscape of Iowa, and surely made an impression on a young Veblen.


Oswald would likely have been a student there only a year before moving on to the university at the tender age of 14, but the flush of new facilities he experienced just before leaving high school may have influenced his campaigns later in life to secure good facilities for Princeton's math department and the Institute for Advanced Study.

For his college education, Oswald looked no further than the State University of Iowa, where his father Andrew was a professor with a long beard and a reputation for high standards.

Deane Montgomery, a former faculty member at the IAS and close friend of Veblen's, offered a few insights about those Iowa City college days in Veblen's obituary for the American Mathematical Society: "As a student he won a prize in mathematics and another in sharpshooting. During these early years he took a trip by boat down the Iowa and Mississippi rivers and he often spoke of this trip with pleasure."

Additional research that I have yet to write up suggests that loss--of buildings and landscape--may also have made a big impression on Veblen in his early days. There was the ancestral Veblen land in Norway lost two generations earlier, reportedly to unscrupulous lawyers, but Oswald himself appears to have directly witnessed two great losses in his youth. One was the fire that consumed the university library--a much loved structure with many irreplaceable books. Another was the university green, an area of open space on campus that was progressively lost to buildings for lack of foresight by leaders who had failed to acquire more land early on to accommodate the university's future growth. 

Of all these elements--family tradition, the great outdoors and great indoors, precocious achievement, tragic loss and steady gain--Oswald Veblen was made. 

Thanks to the Iowa City Library and the State Historical Society for assistance in this research.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Vera Rubin--The Courage of Her Curiosity


A friend sent an article from the Atlantic Magazine announcing that a telescope is being renamed in honor of the great astronomer Vera Rubin. That article in turn has led to autobiographies by Ruben and another great astronomer, Margaret Burbidge, both of whose careers intersected with my father's.

Largely government funded, the Vera C. Rubin Observatory is the first national U.S. telescope to be named after a woman. Though the story has no direct connection to Oswald Veblen, it is congruent with his heritage and legacy. In the late 1800s, when women had far fewer options for pursuing higher education, Veblen's parents and grandparents sent all their children to college, daughters and sons alike. One generation attended Carlton College, the next the University of Iowa, which has the distinction of being the first public co-educational university in the U.S..

Oswald would take that familial heritage into his career in Princeton, where he used his position of influence to help the great mathematician Emmy Noether, displaced after the Nazi takeover in Germany find employment in the U.S.. Veblen took the lead in helping find her a position at Bryn Mawr and inviting her to be a Visitor at the IAS. By that time, 1933, Veblen had left Princeton University to become the first faculty member at the Institute for Advanced Study, which was non-discriminatory from its inception. Princeton University, on the other hand, was men-only until 1975. When Vera Rubin expressed an interest in attending Princeton for graduate studies in 1948, the university would not even send her an application. Princeton ultimately came around, giving her an honorary degree in 2005.

Vera Rubin, who was a lifelong advocate for women in science, was herself inspired by a woman astronomer born 110 years earlier than herself, Maria Mitchell. Demonstrating the power of history and legacy, Rubin reportedly chose to attend Vassar College because Mitchell had been a professor of astronomy there 80 years prior.


The story of Vera Rubin has its most direct connection here to my own family's history. The first connection I discovered is geographical. Cerro Pachon, the mountain in northern Chile where the Vera C. Rubin Observatory is nearing completion, is only a half hour from Cerro Tololo, where I spent some free-range halcyon days as a boy, exploring the desert and tossing rocks off the edge of the mountain while my father, W. A. Hiltner, was on extended observing runs.


Another connection is also through my father's career, which intersected to some extent with Vera Rubin's, as in this 1971 photo with my father on the left and Vera Rubin's on the right (courtesy of the AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Dorothy Crawford Collection), and to a much greater extent with the work of astronomer Margaret Burbidge. A NY Times obituary from 2016 states that "Dr. Rubin, along with Margaret Burbidge ..., was a “guiding light” for a generation of female astronomers."

If it's possible to encapsulate major contributions, "Rubin’s work in the 1970s provided convincing evidence that dark matter existed," while Margaret Burbidge and her husband and fellow astronomer Geoff Burbidge, "were best known for their work in the mid-1950s describing how stars synthesize nearly all the chemical elements in the universe, from carbon and iron to lead and uranium."

The Burbidges, originally from England, along with two other great scientists, Fred Hoyle and William Fowler, stirred things up in the astronomy world with their progressive thinking. Their names were very familiar in our household, growing up.

In reading the interviews and autobiographies of Vera Rubin and Margaret Burbidge, I was gratified to discover the role my father played in Margaret's career early on. This was at a time when many institutions of higher education considered astronomy a men-only profession. Margaret's application in 1945 for a Carnegie Fellowship in Pasadena was rejected due to her being a woman, and in 1948 Vera Rubin, as mentioned, was not even allowed to apply for graduate studies at Princeton University. The largest telescope, at Mt. Palomar, would be unavailable for women until Rubin broke through that barrier in the mid-60s, famously taping the figure of a skirt on the bathroom door to create a women's bathroom.

There were no such restrictions at the University of Chicago's department of astronomy, and its two renowned observatories in Wisconsin and Texas. My father was on the faculty at U. of Chicago, based at Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin. In 1951, he was able to arrange funding for Margaret to take a position there, and later came up with a way for her to get coveted observing time on the 82" telescope at McDonald's Observatory in Texas. From her autobiographical essay:
Before the cold Yerkes winter set in, Geoff and I prepared a program to submit for McDonald observing time ... But the time for submission was past; since we wanted winter time when the December Milky Way was up, we were too late. Here the never-to-be-forgotten kindness of Al Hiltner came to our rescue. He had set me to work on prevention of internal reflections and scattered light in a spectrometer for calibrating coude plates at McDonald, and he had a month (I believe) scheduled for photometry at McDonald. He said there would be many nonphotometric nights during this period, and if Geoff and I could get ourselves to McDonald ... we could have the non-photometric nights for spectroscopy ...
Gratifying, too, was reading Burbidge's and Rubin's descriptions of their burgeoning curiosity as children. It brought back memories of growing up among astronomers who loved their work, in a family where curiosity and creativity were valued. Science for me has always been about beauty and exploring the magnificence of creation. 

 Vera Rubin describes her curiosity about the world and her active imagination:
As a youngster, more questions followed. Why did the pictures on my bedroom wall jump back and forth on each side of my finger as I lay in bed blinking my eyes? How did water drops in a stream know on which side of a rock to pass? Could I, a lazy child, devise a street on which one sidewalk went uphill and one side downhill, so that I could always walk downhill? A little later, the questions were more conventional. How many license plates can be made with three numbers and two letters? This puzzle I solved as we drove to our new home in Washington, D.C.
At age 4, before beginning school, my first view of the beauty of stars in the summer sky during a night-time boat crossing from England to France was the earliest step toward a lifetime love of astronomy. Then I developed an early interest in arithmetic and in numbers (especially large ones with many powers of ten to write out and contemplate); this began in my first years in school. I had learnt to read before going to school, so books were a continuing delight. My parents gave me books written for children on all the natural sciences, and reading these was coupled with both my mother's and father's willingness to show me and tell me about the wonders of the seashore, of flowers, plants, and trees (both my sister and I became passionate tree climbers throughout Hampstead Heath, near which we lived). My love of flowers is lifelong, and has been inherited by my own daughter.
And later in her youth:
When I was 12 or 13 years old, my grandfather gave me Sir James Jeans' popular books on astronomy. Suddenly, I saw my fascination with the stars, born at age 4, linked to my other delight, large numbers. That the nearest star is 26,000,000,000,000 miles away revived those excitements of my first school years (although falling short of my then favorite contemplation, 1 followed by 36 zeros). I decided then and there that the occupation I most wanted to engage in "when I was grown up" was to determine the distances of the stars. My mother recalled telling me, as I lay on my stomach on the floor reading the wonders described by Jeans, that it was bedtime, and that I pleaded for a little more time: "Mum, it's so exciting!" 
Combined with the intellectual and emotional delight--and resonating with Veblen's hiking and woodchopping ways--was the pleasure Margaret found in the physicality of exploration, whether climbing trees as a kid or spending nights in the dome of an observatory with the heavens above. My father came to astronomy after growing up on a farm, and brought that appetite for physical work and resilience against the elements with him, donning insulated underwear for long nights in the Wisconsin winter, where the best nights for observing were also the coldest.

Margaret put it this way:
I often think about the joys of work in an open dome, under the stars, next to the telescope, joys denied to most younger astronomers and students who must sit in a warm console room, facing a television guiding screen and many complex computer interfaces, well removed from the telescope itself. 
Smuggling that avid curiosity and sense of wonder into adulthood not only enriched their lives. It likely helped Vera Rubin and Margaret Burbidge break through (or find ways around) the barriers they encountered as women in a profession dominated by men. One sentence in Vera Rubin's autobiography stood out. In 1960, Rubin had just arrived in the Netherlands for an International Summer Course in Science. There she heard lectures from some of the world's greatest astronomers--Jan Oort and the Burbidges among them. "Initially," she wrote, "Oort terrified me, but I soon had too many questions to stay silent."

Thus the title of this post: The Courage of Her Curiosity. In the 21st century, when so many people hold convictions, sure they are right when surely they are wrong, we would do well to turn to curiosity as a better source of courage.


(Vera Rubin posing with Kitt Peak Observatory in the background--an institution my father played an important role in developing, and where a telescope bears his name. It was at Kitt Peak in 1968 that Vera Rubin and Kent Ford made discoveries that would transform our understanding of the universe. Thanks to AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives for these photos.)

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Shambaugh -- Some Improbable Veblen Connections

This week, the local public library is hosting a workshop in which "participants will write a letter of appreciation and praise to a deserving person in their life." Maybe there's something in the air, with the close of the second decade of the 21st Century, because I had just sent off a couple letters expressing gratitude for professors who had inspired me long ago, in another place and another century.


One was a music professor whose courses on 18th Century counterpoint helped me develop as a composer. His name was Elwood Derr, and using the same simple research approach that has brought to light so much information about the Veblens and the Whiton-Stuarts, I quickly found out that he had passed away, that he had once studied with Carl Orff of Carmina Burana fame, and that his wife might still be alive.

I also noticed that Professor Derr's middle name was Shambaugh. Out of curiosity, knowing from research on Jesse Paulmier Whiton-Stuart just how meaningful a name can be, I decided to search for significant Shambaughs that might be related. Two popped up in an internet search. Remarkably, both were contemporaries of Oswald Veblen and both heralded from his home state of Iowa. What are the chances of that? One was Benjamin Franklin Shambaugh--a very important sounding name.

Benjamin Franklin Shambaugh


A search for a Veblen-Shambaugh connection brought up a list of faculty from 1900 at the University of Iowa. The screenshot shows Veblen's father and Benjamin Shambaugh one after the other on the list. Friends of mine who went to U of Iowa remember attending lectures in Shambaugh Hall. Like Veblen at Princeton, Shambaugh at U of I had a profound impact on the development of the university. Shambaugh not only built the political science department but also established the State Historical Society of Iowa and promoted the study of local history. A description of Ben Shambaugh and his wife--"The couple had no children, but their home was always a social center for Shambaugh's students and colleagues."--could also be said of the Veblens. Whether Benjamin Shambaugh and my music professor Elwood Shambaugh Derr, Jr. are related has yet to be determined, but the coincidence of names is uncanny.

More reading that sprung from the Shambaugh-Veblen connection shows just how extraordinary was that turn-of-the-century era in which Oswald Veblen came of age. Something was in the air--something like the promise of a nation on the rise. The university website gave emphasis to the list of faculty from 1900 because it represented the dawning of a new era--an era that through the efforts of Veblen and many others would raise America to a position of leadership in academics around the world. When Oswald Veblen graduated from the U. of Iowa in 1898, there were no departments, no majors, no College of Liberal Arts. Students seeking advanced training had customarily headed to Europe, for lack of adequate academic institutions in the U.S.. All that would change as the century turned, in Iowa through the work of an innovative university president, George Maclean, just as Woodrow Wilson would lead Princeton into a new era beginning in 1902. (By coincidence, another Maclean, John Maclean, Jr., Princeton University's 10th president, was "one of the chief architects of New Jersey's public education system.")

Jessie Field Shambaugh


Another remarkable Shambaugh from Iowa, born a year after Oswald, in 1881, was Jessie Field Shambaugh, who in 1910 developed the clover logo for what would become known as the 4-H Club. She chose the clover leaf because clover is so good for the soil. Each leaf had an H, representing Head, Hand, Heart, and Home. Though Veblen likely wasn't involved in 4-H, his love of intellect, physical work, people, and buildings is the embodiment of those four words.

Jessie acquired the Shambaugh name from her husband, Ira William Shambaugh. Whether he is related to my former music professor is unknown, but in any case, gratitude has multiplied, as a former composition teacher introduced me not only to musical counterpoint but an unlikely Veblen connection as well.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Veblen House--The Terra Cotta Connection


Among all the photos that Oswald Veblen took of the Veblen House and garden back in the 1950s is this photo of what looks like an abandoned plant. I would look at this photo and shrug, then move on to all the others showing Elizabeth Veblen with her daffodils, the caretaker's impressive piles of split firewood, or different angles of the house.

Recently, while researching the life of the Veblens' longtime caretaker, Max Latterman, I found a 1985 Trenton Times article that mentioned that Max had been an unemployed tile factory worker when he "first joined the estate, then owned by a wealthy family from New York." That would be the Whiton-Stuarts, who built and lived in the house before selling it to the Veblens in 1941. Max is the unifying character in the Veblen House story, having cared for the property through three owners: the Whiton-Stuarts, the Veblens, and then Mercer County Parks, which rented the house to arborist Bob Wells and family.

Having lived on Copper Mine Road near Rocky Hill, Max most likely worked for the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company, which had a plant in Rocky Hill until it closed in 1932. This from the Franklin Township Library website, with the same text as in the book, The Millstone Valley Through Time:
In 1894, the Excelsior Terra Cotta Company built a factory on 100-plus acres along Canal Road. In 1907, this became part of the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company -- the world's largest manufacturer of architectural terra cotta. Atlantic's terra cotta adorns the Woolworth Building in New York City and the roof of the Philadelphia Art Museum as well as dozens of buildings that were once dubbed Manhattan’s 'Terra Cotta Skyline.' This factory closed in 1932.

This photo, courtesy of the Franklin Township Public Library, shows what the plant looked like around 1910. It's not clear if the terra cotta for the Woolworth Building and the Philadelphia Museum of Art had its origins in Rocky Hill's clay (Perth Amboy had the company's main plant), but the timing of the Rocky Hill plant's closing fits our story, since Whiton-Stuart bought the land for what would later be Veblen House in 1931. But the Trenton Times article about Max Latterman says he began working for Whiton-Stuart in 1927. Another source says that Rocky Hill's population dropped by half around 1927, which suggests there may have been a big layoff at the plant at that point.

There is, then, a mystery as to whether the builder of Veblen House arrived in Princeton five years before actually building the house. It's conceivable that Whiton-Stuart rented the land for five years before buying it from its owner, Thomas Baker. Since the Whiton-Stuarts were in the same social circles as the Pyne family of Drumthwacket, perhaps Whiton-Stuart was partnering with Agnes Pyne and her horse farm on Herrontown Road well before he and his wife Mary moved to Princeton.

(A bit of an aside: No doubt competing with the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company back in the early 20th century was the American Terra Cotta Corporation in Crystal Lake, Illinois, which may well have made the elaborate and whimsical terra cotta used on the edifice I grew up next to in Wisconsin--an intellectual enclave with some of the feel of the Institute for Advanced Study--called Yerkes Observatory. Only now, through research on a German immigrant to New Jersey named Max Latterman, does that lovely tan color I grew up next to have a name.


Here's a photo of the American Terra Cotta Ceramic Works in Illinois, which has more of the look of the Veblen photo above.)

Born in 1905, Latterman immigrated to the U.S. from Germany in the 1920s. It appears that research done by Richard Velt, published in "Moving Beyond the Factory Gates: The Industrial Archaeology of New Jersey's Terra Cotta Industry," could help us understand Max's experience as a tile plant worker, and the role of the terra cotta industry in New Jersey. Here's the abstract for the article:
This paper examines the rise and fall of New Jersey's architectural terra cotta industry (c. 1870-1930) through its products. Particular consideration is paid to the factors leading to its growth, the methods employed in manufacturing terra cotta, and the part played by new European immigrants in the success of this industry. Although urban renewal has removed most of the terra cotta factories from the modern landscape, their products still remain. Here attention is focused on the architectural terra cotta that colored urban skylines at the turn of the century and the unusual ceramic gravemarkers that dot the Clay District's cemeteries. These seemingly disparate sources, examined in their historic context, provide interesting insights into the skills, craftsmanship, and ethnicities of the terra cotta workers. 

Interestingly, the historic 1860 House in Montgomery, NJ has behind it a building made of ceramic tile.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

When the Body Teaches the Mind


I had a Veblenesque experience recently when the opportunity came along to play the role of mentor. It began when a young man named Mariano showed some interest in learning how to chop wood. He's 16 and was visiting from Buenos Aires, where the opportunities to chop wood surely are few. Yet wood is enshrined in Argentinian culture as the fuel for asado--an often elaborate barbecue in restaurants and backyards that connects urban culture to its pastoral roots of cow-herding gauchos roaming the pampas.

Part of what makes Oswald Veblen distinct among scholars is the strong pastoral sensibility he carried with him into academia. There was his youth spent in Iowa, and before that the farms that his father grew up on--a progression of farms hewed from the wilds of the Wisconsin and Minnesota frontiers by Oswald's Norwegian immigrant grandfather. How might this heritage have influenced Veblen and the town, university, and Institute he so actively inhabited?

My new friend Mariano saw the abundant stacked firewood in our backyard, and asked how I managed to split it all. It was a curious process, teaching him to chop wood, because when I tried to explain how to do it, I realized I didn't really know. My body knows, however, so in order to teach his body how to chop wood, I needed to consult with my own, and then translate my muscles' memory and wisdom into instructions that he could then communicate to his own body. In other words, our minds were mere conduits for knowledge stored in one body that needed to become learned by another.

My body taught me how to hold the axe, how to slide the left hand down the handle as I raise the axe above my head, how to position the legs and use the larger muscle groups to gain power, all of which I then passed along to him. It took awhile for his muscles to catch on. Learning is sometimes a process of finding out how many ways one can do something wrong before the body agrees to do it right. Before long, he had become accurate enough in his swing to split the wood in two, and showed tremendous satisfaction in the accomplishment.

That I know how to split wood at all owes most likely to my father, who became an astronomer after growing up on a farm in northeastern Ohio. My grandfather, like Veblen's, was a farmer and carpenter. That physicality and tradition of building/growing I have then carried forward into an increasingly urbanized world. It can be said to be a heritage and set of skills passed not mind to mind but body to body, and comes in handy if you happen to buy a house with a woodstove, or wish to repair another physical legacy: the house and cottage the Veblens left to the public trust.


This interplay between body and mind can be seen at many levels in Oswald Veblen's life and legacy. Veblen did a lot of mentoring of young mathematicians in his day, but his intellectual pursuits were deeply connected to a passion for the physical world. That passion can be seen in his love of woodchopping, of the buildings he brought into being, and of the nature he worked to preserve.




We don't have a photo of Veblen with an axe, but we know he liked to lead his colleagues at the Institute on brush-clearing expeditions in the Institute Woods--the land he did so much to acquire for the Institute in the 1930s and 40s. Among his brilliant recruits for woodchopping was Paul Dirac, known as "the Mozart of Science," who carried on the tradition after Veblen was gone.






The grounds around Veblen's house, across town from the Institute, included great piles of firewood--the product of caretaker Max Latterman's labors. That wood fueled the woodstove in the cottage, where Veblen had his study, and the fireplace in the Veblen House.

The firewood is long gone, but the buildings Veblen helped bring into being-- the university's Jones Hall, and Fuld Hall at the Institute for Advanced Study--still stand. Those buildings can be seen as bodies, designed to support and inform the intellectual missions of the University and the Institute. Without Veblen's vision and persistence, the Institute for Advanced Study might have remained without a "body" to inhabit, since its other originators thought the Institute could exist without any actual buildings to house it. And it was Veblen's design of Jones Hall (originally called Fine Hall) that brought together mathematicians who had previously been working out of their homes.

The nature Veblen worked to preserve--600 acres for the Institute Woods and 100 acres for Herrontown Woods--is also a body, to be walked through and interacted with.

As people become more urbanized and lose touch with the mechanics of living off the land, trees tend to get romanticized, to the point that a saw and an axe can seem to be the enemy. The slaughter of mature forests worldwide has intensified this view, but utilizing the trees that come down in our "urban forest" brings a deeper level of understanding and appreciation. There's a lot to learn about the wood. Straight-grained trees like ash or red maple, black locust or red oak, split relatively easily, but each section of trunk or branch is different. Some have knots that resist splitting. Some sections of the tree may have been under stress due to the tilt of the tree--a stress that manifests as a more twisted grain that's harder to split. Small cracks in the wood can give clues as to where to aim the axe. Sometimes a section that should split easily does not. If the wood doesn't split on the first stroke, the sound the wood makes when struck can indicate whether it's worth persisting. There's a deep sound that is beautiful to the ear of a wood splitter. That sound says the wood is ready to split and will succumb with another blow or two.

Part of the mentoring of Mariano was to listen for that sound, as we prepared the bodies of trees to feed the woodstove that helps heat the home I inhabit, which in turn inhabits and gives back to the body of nature. In this way, the body in all its manifestations forms and informs our world.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

A Mingling of Whiton-Stuarts and Pynes in 1920s Morristown

The Whiton-Stuarts, builders and first residents of what would later become known as the Veblen House, are a fascinating family to research. They were wealthy, idiosyncratic, peripatetic, adventurous. The husband, Jesse, dropped out of Harvard to travel the world, then settled down long enough to get married and build a prosperous company selling high-end real estate in Manhattan. The marriage endured, but their means and apparent restlessness caused them to make frequent shifts to new locales. It may have been Jesse's passion for the outdoors, particularly hunting, horses and hounds, that prompted a move to a cattle ranch in Prescott, Arizona when their kids were growing up. Moving back east, they lived in Morristown, seemingly timed with Jesse's stepfather's last years, but also lived in Greenwich, CT, before moving to Princeton in the early 1930s. Their two children each married three times, into families of prominence and wealth.

Our research into the Whiton-Stuarts always swings back to two central questions: What prompted their move to Princeton, and what is the story behind the prefab house they brought along with them from Morristown, NJ? The answer to the latter almost certainly resides in the microfilm of old newspapers in the Morristown and Morris Township Public Library. Those newspapers have yet to be digitized, so we're first harvesting whatever clues to their whereabouts and lifestyles can be found on the internet.

A few tidbits recently popped up in some digitized issues of a newspaper called the "Morristown Topics." It was found in a google search that included the Whiton-Stuarts and the Freylinghuysens. A researcher at the Morristown library had checked the 1917 Morristown city directory and found the Whiton-Stuarts listed as living on Whippany Road. The summer estate donated by the Freylinghuysen family to Morris County in 1969 to create Freylinghuysen Arboretum borders Whippany Road, so it's likely they knew the Whiton-Stuarts. The Whippany River Club, of which Whiton-Stuart was a member, is named after the river that flows through Morristown.

Though the Morristown Topics was published from 1921 to 1928, only the first year's issues could be found online. In those were 8 references to the Whiton-Stuarts, providing clues to their upscale social circles and Jesse's passion for horseback riding. Newspapers back then tracked closely the whereabouts of people of wealth and status, making it easy to see who was socializing with whom.

THE PYNES AND THE WHITON-STUARTS
One possible answer as to why the Whiton-Stuarts moved to Princeton in the early 1930s, and ended up living next to the Pyne's horse farm, is that they moved in the same social circles as the Pynes who were based in Princeton. A list of those who took part in fox hunts in the Morristown area in the fall of 1920 includes Jesse Whiton-Stuart and two members of the Pyne family: Grafton and Rivington.

The major benefactor of Princeton University, Moses Taylor Pyne, was related to three men named Percy Rivington Pyne. He was son of Percy Rivington Pyne I, brother of Percy Rivington Pyne II, and uncle to Percy Jr. and Grafton Howland Pyne.  Grafton was Rivington Jr.'s older brother, having been born in 1890.


Thanks to Paul Davis of the Historical Society of Princeton, I have learned that Princeton had its own version, the Stony Brook Hunt Club, that continued through 1937. The list of members for the 1931-2 season shows the Whiton-Stuarts as members, along with the wives of Moses Taylor Pyne and his son, M. Taylor Pyne, Jr. The latter is likely Agnes, who owned the horse farm in eastern Princeton next to the land the Whiton-Stuarts built their home on--what we now know as Veblen House and Herrontown Woods. Other names on the membership list include Richard Stockton, III.

The lives of the Whiton-Stuarts and the Pynes may have intersected in New York as well, where they both had homes on Park Avenue. A connection can be found two generations prior, when Jesse's step-grandfather signed a letter to Congress during the infamous hung election of 1876, also co-signed by ancestors of the Pynes and Marquands.

JESSE AND THE CONSPICUOUS LEISURE OF THE ESSEX FOX HOUNDS

Gigs I've played as a musician have sometimes landed me in one or another of the old country clubs, where paintings on the walls depicted fox hunts. Why, I would wonder, would people want to dress up like that and chase a fox?


(A bit of an aside: Just visited the Institute for Advanced Study, and was surprised to find two paintings of this sort on the wall of the room in Fuld Hall where elite scholars meet every afternoon for tea (see photo). Among other decor in the room is a bust of Einstein.)

The Morristown Topics offers some insights into that world of conspicuous leisure, which may or may not be the same world Oswald Veblen's uncle Thorstein wrote about 20 years prior in "The Theory of the Leisure Class."

The aim here is to describe rather than judge the culture of the wealthy in the 1920s, of which the Whiton-Stuarts and Pynes were a part. It's tempting to look back and judge those who found sport in a fox's distress and (sometimes) demise. But any judging must be done with full awareness that our own era will be the most harshly judged of all, as we knowingly alter the global climate. We can question past behaviors, but any notions of moral superiority are illusory.

Fox hunting season extended from November into April. The red foxes that now populate our neighborhoods, nonchalantly trotting down our streets and nesting beneath the neighbor's house, were originally introduced from Europe for the purpose of fox hunts. The native gray fox is a less sporting quarry, since it can quickly elude the hounds by climbing a tree--a skill red foxes do not have. The fox was pursued by hounds and horses through a mixed landscape of forest and fenced farms that tested all participants' riding ability. There was cooperation among landowners who would make their land conducive to the hunt, and the fall/winter hunting season presumably minimized any trampling of crops. Wire fences were "paneled" with wood to protect the horses from the barbs as they jumped. The chase began when the hounds "found," i.e. picked up a scent in a "covert"--a thicket where foxes often hide out during the day. The chase would end when the fox was "run to earth," meaning it disappeared down a hole, or more gruesomely when it was caught and killed by the hounds.

This account of a hunt, from the first issue of the Morristown Topics on Dec. 31, 1920, gives a sense of the experience:
ESSEX FOX HOUNDS
The members of the Essex Fox Hounds are hoping that the snows and rains of the first of this week will not close an enjoyable season. The hunters have had several excellent runs, two record breakers, and very few blank days, one of the most famous taking place on Thanksgiving Day when the hounds, meeting at Hickory Tree, found very shortly after the meet in the woods, north of the river. The fox led them across the farms of Messrs Harry Hoy and S. Harold Freeman and on to the neighborhood of Pottersville where he went to earth after a run of ten miles with only three checks, except for a few moments when the field was held up by wire and winter wheat. The hounds were in sight practically all of the time. Another run, the hounds found late in the day in a field south of the river. The fox ran to earth a hundred yards beyond the fins but was dugout and led a glorious chase across the Bedminstjer-Pluckamin road, up the Schley hill and then circled around the woods on the summit. The run lasted almost two hours, darkness causing its close. Among those who have ridden this fall are: Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Symington, Mr- and Mrs. J. McAlpin Pyle, J. P. Whiton Stuart, Earle N. Cutler, LeEoy Whitney, Mr. and Mrs. R. H. Williams Jr., Mr- and Mrs. Crawford Barton, Mr. and Mrs. Winston Chanler, Mr. and Mrs. Fred W. Jones, Mr. and Mrs- Hagan, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Scribner, Jr., Mr. and Mrs. K. B. Schley, Miss Emily Stevens, Miss Mary Stevens, Miss Agnes Fowler, The Misses Brice, the Misses Hawle, Dr. A. S. Knight, A. Hyde, F. Van, S. Hyde, A. Musgrave Hyde, Rivington Pyne, Grafton Pyne, Arthur A- Fowler, Alexander Philips, William A. Larned, George Meseroy, DeCoursey Fales, Richard A. Gambril.
Reports from Somerset Hills in December, 1921, nearly a year later, illustrate that the fox hunts could be perilous for the hunters as well:
Mr. Whiton Stuart had a fall and broke his arm. The fracture was impacted and it was with considerable difficulty that Dr. Green had him carried to Mr. George Brice's house from which he was later taken to All Souls' Hospital. 
Mr. J. P. Whiton-Stuart, who has been at All Souls' Hospital recovering from a serious injury received on the hunting Held, has left for New York, where he will undergo an operation.  
Mr. Whiton-Stewart, who broke his arm while hunting with the Essex Fox Hounds last month, is reported as doing well at his home in Greenwich. 
Other mentions of the Whiton-Stuarts are about travels and schooling for their son, Robert:
Robert Whiton Stuart will return on Wednesday, January 5, to the Stuyvesant School, Warrington, Va. 
Jan. 21, 1921: Mr. and Mrs. J. P. Whiton-Stuart have left for their apartment on Park avenue, where they will spend the remainder of the winter 
Sept. 23, 1921: Mrs. J. P. Whiton Stuart was among those returning from Europe on the "Lapland"
CONSPICUOUS LEISURE AND GOOD WORKS
Mixed with the conspicuous leisure is evidence of people achieving remarkable things for the public good. In the Jan. 21 issue, talk of sport segues into news of a woman who fought to protect the cliff dwellings of Colorado and to found Mesa Verde National Park.
The extreme cold of the last few days will cause many to feel the lure of a mild climate where life is filled •with all the sports of the great out-of-doors—golf, polo, fishing, swimming, hunting and aeroplaning, that new pastime which has not yet lost its novelty. 
Mrs. Gilbert McCIurg, formerly a resident of Morristown, has been spending a few days with her sister, Miss Donaghe. Mrs. McCIurg, who recently made her home in Colorado Springs and Stonington, Conn., is known as a writer and lecturer, her special work dealing with pre-historic ruins of America. The public knew very little of the historic value of these ruins previous to the founding of the Cliff Dwelling Association, of which Mrs. McCIurg was the originator and which has now been placed under the protection of the Government. Mrs. McCIurg has returned to her summer home in Stonington, where she has purchased an interesting building of the Georgian period. 
Virginia McClurg was also a member of the Mayflower Descendants--an organization that included Jesse's wife, born Mary Marshall Ogden.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Antique Septic Tank Found at Veblen House

This isn't the sort of discovery that will float everyone's boat, but it relates to a subject as profound as the most daunting enigma of mathematics or physics. Nature mastered the nutrient and carbon cycles long ago. If we're so smart, why haven't we? In nature, there is no such thing as waste. Everything is utilized, while our stubbornly linear economy leaves pollution and trash in its wake. As brilliant minds unlock the secrets of the universe, persistent questions on earth go unanswered.

A couple weeks ago, after yet another spring rain had left the Veblen House grounds even more saturated than before, it occurred to me that this would be the perfect time to explore how the Veblen House used to deal with nutrient cycling. Word had it that there was a septic tank somewhere on the grounds. They usually are buried a foot or so down, which requires probing the ground with a metal rod. With the soil so soft, a metal "tree feeder" worked well enough. You push it in here and there, hoping to encounter something solid. Someone with a good ear and feel can tell if it's a septic tank or a rock. Things start getting definitive when one makes multiple probes several feet this way or that and finds the same obstruction at the same depth. Once the tank's extent is determined, it's time to start digging.


That's what I did, and this is what I found, with the digging assistance of friend Andrew. The shape, though, was different from a normal septic tank--round rather than rectangular--and though the lid is concrete, the underlying tank itself appears to be made of brick and mortar. It appeared to be an antique form.



A likely likeness was seconds away on the internet. Type "septic tank history" into google, and this image pops up, along with a brief history of the septic tank.

A Frenchman named Mouras built the first one back in 1860. What may come as a surprise is that after ten years of use, he opened it up and found almost no solid waste. This fits with what I've heard about composting toilets, and also about the way we metabolize food. Our internal combustion is a magic show that turns solid fuel into invisible carbon dioxide gas. Much of what began as food escapes as "exhaust" each time we exhale. Run a 5K and you'll likely find yourself lighter, primarily from burning energy and breathing. We are made mostly of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen--all elements that come from the air. "Dust to dust" may be a memorable saying, but there is very little of the earth in us, or what we leave behind.

There are other structures on the Veblen grounds that suggest an even earlier version of a septic system. It's not clear if the latest find was still in use when the house was last occupied, or if a more modern version is buried somewhere nearby. Figuring out how all of these functioned will tell a story that continues to this day, as humanity struggles to emulate nature's marvelously sustainable cycling of nutrients and carbon.

There's always hope on the horizon, as an Australian company that's changing the world "from the bottom up" offers a composting toilet to replace chemical porta-potties in Australia, and a few options exist on the fringes of the linear economy in the U.S..

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 Farmstead in 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.