Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Upcoming Talk on Oswald Veblen: "Princeton's Christopher Robin"

George Dyson, author of Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, will give a talk entitled "Princeton's Christopher Robin - Oswald Veblen and the Six-Hundred-Acre Woods". The third chapter of his book describes Veblen's life and contributions to early computer development.

The talk will detail how Veblen's vision and initiative led to the Institute for Advanced Study acquiring some 600 acres of greenspace back in 1930s, setting the stage for later preservation efforts that led to saving the land from development. From a DR Greenway email: "Growing up in these woods, Dyson is in a unique position to recount its journey to preservation. Owned first by William Penn, then  finally to the Institute, Dyson declares, 'Veblen put the fractured pieces back together.'"

The talk is on Thursday, March 21, 2013, 7:00 - 8:30pm at the DR Greenway's Johnson Education Center. More info at

Bringing Nature and Culture Together

The poem "A Bringing Together" lists all the ways the Veblens brought different entities together, including nature and culture. How did they bring nature and culture together? Their homestead on the edge of Herrontown Woods is a particularly good example of how wildness can transition into cultivation.
The woods, particularly as one climbs up the slope of the Princeton Ridge, is filled with diabase boulders. They are beautiful in their variety and groupings in the woods.

Some of these get put to use as stepping stones.

But as one approaches the Veblen homestead (this photo's from the 1950s), they begin to be put to all sorts of uses:

long rock walls,

a more carefully built circular wall for corralling and exercising horses,
a funerary, as well as other intentional gatherings: a fish pond, the house foundation, an oval of stones around the house. One's last step before entering the house is on a large flat stone placed as a front step before the threshold. .

Wood, too, gets put to use, its stored energy channeled into heat for the fireplace beside which Elizabeth would gather friends together for tea.

The straight, rot-resistant trunks of cedar trees became the four corners of the hay barrack (left in photo), used for storing firewood.

There is a balance here, where nature is not dominated, overrun or extinguished, yet its offerings are utilized in inventive ways.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Models for Veblen House--Lawrence Nature Center

Both Oswald and Elizabeth Veblen's wills refer to the Veblen House as the "house herein devised as a part of the proposed library and museum of Herrontown Woods." When they donated 81 acres of Herrontown Woods to the county, they stipulated that it be used "to stimulate and develop public appreciation of the values of wildlife and plants." At the time, Mercer County director of parks and rec, Richard J. Coffee, said 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.

Though the county did not follow through, examples elsewhere show how it can be done.

Recently, former Lawrenceville mayor, Pam Mount, gave me a tour of the Lawrenceville Nature Center. Bought by Lawrenceville Township in 1998, the interior was stripped down to the studs and refinished. The work was done largely in-house, by public works staff who happened to have the necessary skills. Architectural drawings were provided pro bono.
The center is run by volunteers who organize programming.
One room is used for a library and nature museum.
Another works well for meetings and events.
Scouts and other groups added to the grounds, including a raingarden that receives water from the building's downspouts.
A butterfly garden went in on the other side, installed and maintained by volunteers.

The cost of renovating and running this nature center have been kept low by using existing staff, augmented by community volunteers. Money was spent on positive things--renovating, maintenance.

It may seem obvious that one should spend money on positive things, but all too often, when a house drops off a government's list of priorities, only what I call "negative money" can be spent. Negative money might take the form of expensive studies that predict very high costs for renovation, or on damage control following long periods of neglect.

The Lawrenceville Nature Center shows what can be done when a community approaches a challenge with a can-do spirit, and seeks creative, low-cost ways to fill a community need.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

ENIAC--Veblen's Role in Early Computers

Oswald Veblen played a key role in the early history of the computer. The need to speed up computations was most keenly felt by the U.S. military. During both World Wars, Veblen spent a portion of his time working for the military at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, overseeing advancements in ballistics calculations needed to improve the accuracy of artillery. The first computers were women, employed during the wars to compute the ballistics tables required for aiming artillery. In World War II, as both guns and targets became more mobile, the complexity of these calculations began to overwhelm the capacities of human calculators, and the need for better computing machines became evident.

It was Veblen's decision in 1943, as chief scientist of the Army Ballistics Research Laboratory in Aberdeen, Maryland during World War II, to fund the development of the first general-purpose electronic computer.

George Dyson, in his book, Turing's Cathedral, describes the critical role Veblen's  judgement and decisive action played in bringing the project to fruition. Listening to a presentation Herman Goldstine was giving to Leslie Simon about the proposal, Veblen, "after listening for a short while to my presentation and teetering on the back legs of his chair brought the chair down with a crash, arose, and said 'Simon, give Goldstine the money.'"

The ENIAC was built at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering in Philadelphia, at a cost of $500,000. The Penn Engineering website describes the result: "Originally announced on February 14, 1946, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), was the first general-purpose electronic computer. Hailed by The New York Times as "an amazing machine which applies electronic speeds for the first time to mathematical tasks hitherto too difficult and cumbersome for solution," the ENIAC was a revolutionary piece of machinery in its day."

Thanks to Steve Kruse for sending me this biography of Herman Goldstein.
Thanks to Bob Wells, who lived in and cared for the Veblen House from 1975-1998, for this link to a fine description of the ENIAC as a magical creation.