Monday, July 27, 2015

Weyl Fermion Discovery--The Veblen Connection

When I saw the headline "After 85-year search, massless particle with promise for next-generation electronics discovered" among the Princeton University website's top stories, my response was a bit cynical. So many headlines tease us with important discoveries that could transform society, only to reveal deeper into the text that the discovery won't find practical uses for decades, if ever.

The text reporting this discovery, however, got more interesting as it went along. Turns out the massless particle was first proposed "by the mathematician and physicist Hermann Weyl in 1929." If you look at the Robert Nolan biography of Oswald Veblen, you find that Veblen "was largely responsible for selecting the other members of the original faculty (of the Institute for Advanced Study): James W. Alexander II, Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, and Hermann Weyl."

The Princeton University article goes on to say:
"Weyl fermions have been long sought by scientists because they have been regarded as possible building blocks of other subatomic particles, and are even more basic than the ubiquitous, negative-charge carrying electron (when electrons are moving inside a crystal). Their basic nature means that Weyl fermions could provide a much more stable and efficient transport of particles than electrons, which are the principle particle behind modern electronics. Unlike electrons, Weyl fermions are massless and possess a high degree of mobility; the particle's spin is both in the same direction as its motion — which is known as being right-handed — and in the opposite direction in which it moves, or left-handed."
Maybe someone's imagination, massless and possessing a high degree of mobility, will find useful applications for the Wehl fermion much sooner than later, in which case we will need to invent a dance in which we all spin both directions at the same time.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Veblen's Mathematical Genealogy

I was talking to a classical pianist the other day, and told her I'm three generations removed from Bela Bartok. She replied that she's 6th generation Beethoven. My link to Bela Bartok stems from having studied piano with Michele Cooker, who studied with Gyorgy Sandor, who was a student of Bartok's. Though Michele taught me piano rather than composition, maybe some quality of Bartok rubbed off, because I went on to write many short piano pieces for my students, in the spirit of Bartok's Mikrokosmos.

Similar lineages are traced in the world of mathematics. Jon Johnson, who's on the board of Friends of Herrontown Woods, sent me this link documenting Oswald Veblen's mathematical descendants. By this count, Veblen had 16 students and 10,126 descendants. The second number will steadily increase as descendants advise each new generation of mathematicians. The majority of Veblen's mathematical descendants can be attributed to three of his students, Alonzo Church, R.L. Moore, and John Whitehead. That Veblen played the advisor role for just 16 students must owe in part to his having left Princeton University to join the Institute for Advanced Study, which did not have the traditional advisory relationship between faculty and graduate students.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Taking a Step Towards Reuse

One central theme of the Veblen House project is reuse. This can be seen most obviously in the form of saving and repurposing a remarkable historic house, but also plays out in small everyday ways, like the salvaging and repurposing of this climbing wall. Part of a backyard play set, it was put out for the trash in my neighborhood. As it happens, there's a muddy stretch of trail between the Veblen House and cottage that could use a boardwalk, and this looked to be perfect for the purpose.

With the handholds removed, it was rolled into place on a wheelbarrow similarly rescued from the curb. Another piece was added, meaning that about 100 pounds less "stuff" got hauled to the landfill, and we no longer have to dodge the mud. It also saved the time and materials that a newly constructed boardwalk would have required.

Imagination and re-visioning stand between an economy's phenomenal productivity and a bulging landfill. Resourcefulness means fewer resources are needed to achieve the same result. The climbing board spent years offering a challenge to kids. Now it offers kids and adults easy passage over a former challenge. What more can we ask, really, from a boardwalk or from ourselves, than to change the world one step at a time?

Friday, July 10, 2015

Veblen House Hosts Rotary Club Youth Exchange Students

New experience, new friends, new spaces, new plants--that was the outcome of an afternoon spent on the Veblen House grounds with participants in the Rotary Youth Exchange Program. The Friends of Herrontown Woods teamed up with the Rotary Club of Princeton to play host to eighteen of the volunteers—from Belgium, Brazil, France, Germany, India and South Korea—all of whom are staying in the U.S. for a year with the help of four Rotary clubs in New Jersey.

My group bravely took on an intimidating stand of multiflora rose in the lower field, cutting back the tangle and hauling the thorny branches off to the woods. The object was to make room for some hazelnut sprouts rescued from a nearby construction site.

Metaphorically speaking, we took a couple lemons (a patch of invasive shrubs and a roadside hazelnut cut down to make way for a house) and made some lemonade,

and had some fun along the way. The eight hazelnuts have all since sprouted and are growing, protected from deer by some fencing.

Meanwhile, other students did some habitat restoration deeper into Herrontown Woods,
and cleared wisteria that had overgrown a the large circular stone wall where horses were once exercised next to the Veblen House. The cleared space within the horse run made a good gathering spot for a group shot. 

All in all, an exhilarating and productive afternoon. Thanks to all the students, and to the Rotary for making this possible.