Monday, November 6, 2017

Mathematics and Memory Meet in Tucson, AZ

This post is prompted by a texted photo from a friend of mine, Carl Hildebrandt. It wasn't a casual selfie. He took it only after riding his bike all the way up a mountain outside Tucson, AZ to reach Kitt Peak Observatory, where there's a telescope named after my father.

Carl, too, has math and science flowing through his veins. His grandfather Theophil Henry Hildebrandt's career as a mathematician paralleled Veblen's in many ways. Hildebrandt arrived at University of Chicago for graduate work just as Veblen was leaving for Princeton, had the same advisor, E.H. Moore, then went on to chair the math department at University of Michigan from 1934-57, and serve as president of the American Mathematical Society from 1945-6. Carl's uncle Theodore spent 1947-8 working at Princeton with von Neumann, Goldstine, and Julian Bigelow on the IAS computer project.

This snippet from Century of Mathematics in America portrays the University of Chicago as the academic center of gravity for American mathematics in 1900, spawning the PhD's who would then go forth to lead the growth of mathematics at Princeton, Harvard, Michigan and other institutions in the 20th century.

Concurrent with this fertile production of many of mathematic's future leaders, Chicago also built Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin, which in 1897 was far from city lights. Yerkes, where I lived while my father was an astronomer there, had many qualities similar to Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study--an academic enclave surrounded by fields and woods on the outskirts of a small town. The observatory remained a center of cutting edge research until the second half of the 20th century, when more advanced telescopes sprouted in drier climes, such as Kitt Peak, AZ.

Tucson drew not only astronomers like my father, but also two of the Whiton-Stuarts--the family that built what would later be called Veblen House. They had already lived in Prescott, AZ, decades earlier, where Jesse spent his days on horseback herding cattle--a change of pace from running his high-end real estate firm in Manhattan. His wife, Mary (Marshall Ogden) Whiton-Stuart later moved back to Arizona to live in Tucson for the last 13 years of her life, as did her daughter, Silvia, for portions of that time.

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." 
Gerard Kuiper was a colleague of my father's at Yerkes, and Mary may well have been a member of the Society of Mayflower Descendants. They might have met had she lived a little longer.

Thanks to Carl for prompting me to weave all these threads together.

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