Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Mathematician's Dot and Line Forest

(originally posted at

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Veblen: Open Space and Buildings As Environment

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 26, 2012

More Evidence That Veblens and County Envisioned a Museum

Further evidence has come to light that the original vision for Herrontown Woods was to include preservation and utilization of the house and cottage the Veblens donated with their land. In an article (or here) published July 26, 1957 in the New York Times, which reports on the Veblens' donation of 81 acres to the county, the Mercer County director of parks and rec, Richard J. Coffee, says of the new arboretum: "Eventually, we envision a nature museum, a system of trails through wooded areas, with trees and other plants labelled." He said that the county hoped to provide lectures and opportunities for nature study.

Elizabeth Veblen states in the article, "There is nowhere around here that you can get away from cars and just go walk and sit." "Princeton when we came here in 1905 was a lovely village." She explained that the donation was made "in hope that a little bit of this outdoor atmosphere can be preserved." The Veblens' donation was valued at the time at $154,000.

I should think the Veblens, if they were able to return to see how things are going, would be delighted at how open space advocates have preserved hundreds of additional acres east and west of Herrontown Woods, but would also be wondering when the buildings are going to be fixed up and put to use.

Veblen House and the Princeton Ridge Corridor

This map shows the corridor of greenspace that extends east and west from the Veblen House site. Part of the proposal for restoring the house and cottage, recently submitted to the county for consideration, is to take advantage of this strategic location to provide a destination that could help draw people to this extraordinary greenspace corridor along the Princeton ridge.

What the Veblens began, by donating 81 acres for Herrontown Woods in 1957 and 14 additional acres in 1974, has been expanded on by conservation organizations, including recent acquisition of three of the parcels listed below.

78 acres: Autumn Hill Reservation
142 acres: Herrontown Woods
14 acres: Ricciardi Tract
35 acres: All Saints Church tract
17 acres: former Lowe property, donated by J. Robert Hillier

286 acres total, which then extend into the SOC and Gulick tracts, in turn connected to the long DR Canal State Park corridor.

Andrew Appel on Veblen's Role in Early Computers

A friend at Princeton University's Keller Center pointed me to a talk by Princeton computer science professor, Andrew Appel, with reference to old Fine Hall and Oswald Veblen. The talk is entitled "Turing, Godel and Church at Princeton in the 1930s". The references to Veblen occur about eight minutes in, at 8:30 and 9:30 respectively in the video.

The Keller Center, by the way, has as its mission to "Educate leaders for a technology-driven society." Its archived videos start with a snappy little musical number I composed and recorded on sax and piano--my thirteen seconds of fame.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Veblens' Desire for a Library and Museum

While the Veblen House has been sitting boarded up since 2000, there has been debate about what the Veblens' intentions for the house had been, having bequeathed it to Mercer County after Elizabeth's death in 1974. I had heard that they had wanted it to be used as a nature center, but there was nothing in writing to prove it.

Finally we had the brilliant idea of looking in the Veblen papers at the Institute archives, where we found their wills. Both the 1960 will of Oswald and the 1974 will of Elizabeth's contain the following language:

"I give and bequeath all of my pictures, radio receivers and phonograph records to the said County, to be kept by it in the house herein devised as a part of the proposed library and museum of Herrontown Woods."

Friday, September 7, 2012

Oswald Veblen's Role in Early Computing

Recent publications describe one of Oswald Veblen's contributions that I had not been aware of: his crucial role in the development of the first computers at Princeton back in the 1940s. One of those publications, Jon Edwards' article on The History of Early Computing at Princeton, grew out of Edwards' work in organizing the Turing Centennial Celebration at Princeton University back in May. 

This link to that Centennial includes a video interview of Andrew Appel, Princeton computer science professor, giving a brief history of early work on computers at the university. He describes how the mathematics department at Princeton in the 1930s had been built by Veblen, who "recruited some of the best mathematicians and logicians in the world." The department was housed at old Fine Hall (later renamed Jones Hall), which Veblen designed. Appel also mentions the afternoon teas where Turing, Church, Von Neumann "and even Einstein" would have discussed early concepts for computers. Oswald Veblen's wife, Elizabeth, was from England and instituted the tradition of tea at the math department and later at the Institute for Advanced Study, where the tradition continues. 

Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, by George Dyson, (available locally here) provides some wonderful information on Veblen's background, personality and many contributions on so many levels. Interestingly, Dyson's second chapter, "Olden Farm", begins with a discussion of the Lenape Indians, and its third chapter is entitled "Veblen's Circle".

Dyson and Edwards provide tremendous insights into Veblen's contributions to society--locally, nationally and internationally--some of which I list here:

Veblen convinced Abraham Flexner, founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study, to acquire hundreds of acres for what is now the Institute Woods, so that it would be "kept free from objectionable intruders." Meanwhile, Veblen was acquiring open space parcels on the other side of town, which he and his wife would later donate to the county in 1957 as Herrontown Woods Preserve. These two preserves speak to Veblen's legacy as an early advocate for open space preservation in Princeton.  

As chair of the Rockefeller Foundation's Emergency Committee for Displaced German Scholars, Veblen helped get German math and physics scholars out of Germany before World War II, "undoubtedly delaying the development of Hitler's bomb." 

In his work on ballistics for the military beginning in WWI and continuing through WWII, Veblen "undertook the creation of trajectory tables", the complex calculations that increased the accuracy of Allied artillery and stirred early interest in developing machines that could expedite the computations.

Oswald Veblen, according to Jon Edwards' research, "arguably had a more lasting impact" than his uncle, the more widely known economist and sociologist, Thorstein Veblen, who famously coined the phrase "conspicuous consumption" in his Theory of the Leisure Class. 

Below is a quote from another recent book, Andrew Appel's  Alan Turing's Systems of Logic: the Princeton Thesis.

"OSWALD VEBLEN, chairman of the Princeton University Mathematics Department and first professor at the Institute for Advanced Study. His students include Alonzo Church (PhD 1927), and his PhD descendants through Philip Franklin (Princeton PhD 1921) via Alan Perlis (Turing Award 1966) include David Parnas, Zohar Manna, Kai Li, Jeannette Wing, and 500 other computer scientists. Veblen has more than 8000 PhD descendants overall. He helped oversee the development of the pioneering ENIAC digital computer in the 1940s."

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Veblen House in the 1950s

 I recently obtained some photos of the Veblen House from the 1950s. At that time, it was two-tone, with the top floor brown.
Near the house were a woodshed and a so-called dove cote, which is meant to house pigeons. I've heard that the dove cote was likely installed not by the Veblens but by the previous owner. By coincidence, a friend and I were talking a month ago about how extraordinary it would be for kids to witness a carrier pigeon in action, and thought of the Veblen homestead as one place such an activity could take place.

The woodshed in the background, torn down in 2008 or so by the county, was a very unusual structure, originally designed for the roof to rise and fall to accommodate hay as it was stacked. You can see how the four corner posts extend up from the roof, which slides up and down on them. (Note: Some internet research since writing this post shows that the woodshed was a rare example of a hay barrack, a structure that appears to have originated in Holland to store an overflow of hay from the main barn. The footprint of an old barn is just behind the hay barrack in the photo.)

The living room, with chestnut paneling, was a lovely green color enhanced by light streaming in the large, semi-circular windows. Einstein and others of considerable fame frequently visited the Veblens. My original understanding was that a painting by Robert Oppenheimer of a beloved New Mexican desert landscape had hung above the mantle. More likely is that the painting was one of two the Veblens owned by Charles Oppenheimer, a British painter. The paintings were to be left with the house, but have yet to be found.
Even the garage looks attractive, ornamented by azaleas, mayapples and other spring flowers.
Elizabeth Veblen was quite a gardener, and hosted meetings of a local garden club (most likely the Dogwood Garden Club), members of which continued to care for the grounds even after she died.
Not sure where this photo of Elizabeth was taken,

but this one is out in the field next to the Veblen House.
I believe Max Latterman helped with the grounds, and appears in this photo to be as enthusiastic a wood splitter as Oswald Veblen was reputed to be.