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.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Making the Grade at Veblen House

Sometimes, the truth is in the ground, waiting to be discovered. While awaiting permission to restore the house itself, we have been restoring the original grade around the house, an important step as the slope of the ground determines whether rainwater runs towards the house or safely away.

Aerial photographs from the 1930s show bare ground in the shape of an oval where the house was being built by wealthy and unconventional Manhattanite Jesse Paulmier Whiton-Stuart. It took awhile for us to notice, but there are two ovals around Veblen House--one an oval of stone, the other an earthen berm that used to include a split rail fence. They may have had aesthetic or sentimental value for Whiton-Stuart--a lover of horses who may have enjoyed the idea of living inside a corral--but they also can serve to deflect runoff away from the house. All this circularity must have appealed as well to geometer Oswald Veblen when he and Elizabeth bought the house in 1941.

Long after the Veblens were gone, gravel was added around the house, probably in the 1980s. It may have served a purpose at the time but raised the ground level up to the wooden siding, making the house appear to be too low compared to the surrounding ground. A 2011 Mercer County study called for the house to be raised, at considerable cost.

Our approach has been instead to lower the ground to its original level. It may well have been my third grade teacher who planted the seeds of this logic, when she told the story of a big truck that got stuck under a bridge. There the truck remained while grownups puzzled over what to do. Raise the bridge? Cut the top off the truck? Nothing seemed to make sense. Then a boy happened by, saw the poor truck that couldn't go forward or back, and quietly suggested, "Why don't you let the air out of the tires?" That's the power of stories for you.

Most of the work has been done by Andrew Thornton, a local handyman who loves to work with stone and ground to build trails and raingardens.

As he dug through the layers around the house, he discovered a progression of stone, the prettiest of which was the deepest and likely the original.

A reddish stone gravel was on top, with a gray rough sand underneath, and the yellowish pebbles below.

Mixed in are clinkers, or slag, from the days when the house was heated with coal.

Digging down through the extra gravel has exposed an old gas pipe, which fed gas into the house from a tank, and an electrical wire leading to the garage.

Now that water can flow once again away from the house, Andrew was digging a route for it to escape the inner oval when he came upon an old concrete drain that had long been hidden ten inches underground. Andrew's instinct about where the water should flow proved to be the original owner's as well.

The drain feeds into a pipe that is part of an elaborate system meant to keep the house dry despite its low position in the landscape.

We had a similarly serendipitous experience while restoring another part of the stone wall. Deciding to build steps leading up through the wall, we began digging out a spot for the steps when we encountered big stone steps already in place, hidden just a few inches underground.

Anyone who read The Great Escape, about POWs who secretly dug a tunnel to escape a concentration camp during WWII, knows that all the excavated material needs a place to go. The red gravel has become an oval walkway around the house that will divert surface runoff away from the foundation.

The gray sand has become a berm to catch runoff coming down the slope and use it to feed a raingarden.

Plant labels will help our species get acquainted with the raingarden's species.

The excavation and redistribution was completed in time for the June 24 picnic to celebrate Oswald Veblen's 138th birthday.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Taking a Duck for a Nature Walk

Kurt and I were working on the Veblen House grounds in preparation for the June 24 Veblen birthday gathering (all invited), when some hikers came walking by. Keeping pace with them was their pet duck. Many people walk their dogs at Herrontown Woods, but a young duck also makes a good walking partner.

Her owner explained that the duck is a Magpie named Squishy. I was delighted, but not surprised, as I had made the same trek five years earlier with my daughter and her two-month old runner duck. Ducks are truly astounding in many ways, two of which are the way they imprint on their owners, and their capacity to walk for miles, even from the get go--newly hatched, when they look uncannily like windup toys that never lose their spring.

We got a close look at the Magpie's distinctive feathers and hairstyle--very trendy.

With more presence of mind, I might have invited them over to the Veblen House yard, where Squishy could have enjoyed the little fish pond. But they all looked like they were ready for a good hike, duck included.

They live in Philadelphia, and come up every year or so for a hike at Herrontown Woods. Kurt offered to show them the cliff, which we only rediscovered a few years ago, so off they went, the duck very much one of the gang.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Feature Article on Veblen in the Princeton Alumni Magazine

Thanks to the research and writing talents of Elyse Graham, the Princeton Alumni Weekly devoted its May 16 cover and a feature article to Oswald Veblen and his tireless work in the 1930s and 1940s to find positions in the U.S. for European scholars whose careers and lives were imperiled by the Nazi rise.

post about how the article, and a previous article entitled "Adventures in Fine Hall", contribute to an increasing recognition of Veblen's legacy can be found on the Friends of Herrontown Woods website.

Here are some quotes from the article that provide some insight into Veblen's character:
"Tall and lanky, he had the furtive vanity typical of a mathematician, dressing in handsome but deliberately shabby suits. One of his colleagues, Hermann Goldstine, recalled, 'We always had a theory with Veblen that after he bought a new jacket and pants he would hire somebody to wear them for a few years so that they wouldn’t look new when he put them on.'" 
His eye for talent and lack of professional jealousy:
"Veblen was able to build exciting communities in part because he had an eye for talent and an utter lack of professional jealousy. Goldstine later recalled, 'I think the nicest part about Veblen is that however great a mathematician he was, and he certainly was a great mathematician, he recognized greatness in mathematicians and in scientists, and as far as I know he had no envy for people who were greater than he. And that’s not trivial.'" 
Veblen's motivations:
"according to Institute fellow Leon Cohen, '.... My impression was that young mathematicians of some talent were regarded as resources to be saved.' Cohen added, 'I hesitate to attribute views to Veblen, but the considerations that seem to have actuated him were two: a concern for the welfare of mathematics itself, and a humane concern for certain individuals who had talent.'" 
The article makes frequent mention of lists Veblen compiled of displaced European scholars and how they might contribute to an American educational institution willing to take them in. An echo of Schindler's List can be heard in these gathered names of people who, for lack of a work position in America, might otherwise lose their lives in a Nazi concentration camp.
"Similar lists went out steadily from Veblen’s office to institutions all over the United States, urgent in their volume but, in their expression, as mild and as persistent as snow: 'If it were thought advisable ... ,' 'It is my impression ... ,' 'The clerical work would be very little, using the available facilities.'"
Again, a memorable quote from Herman Goldstine:

"'I think all of Veblen’s life he was a natural administrator and leader,' Goldstine said. 'He was the kind of guy who would keep dripping water on the stone until finally it eroded. If it didn’t happen otherwise, he just kept at it, and at it, and at it.'" 

Maybe that was one reason why Veblen was drawn to the land that later became Herrontown Woods: the many diabase boulders there are highly resistant to erosion, and yet they too ultimately yield to the power of water to slowly create fissures. 

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Renowned Wildlife Champion, Esmond Bradley Martin: The Veblen House Connection

Today, on World Wildlife Day, a tribute to one of the world's great champions of elephants and rhinos. Esmond Bradley Martin devoted his life to investigating illicit trade in tusks and rhino horn, uncovering information critical to efforts to stem the slaughter of these extraordinary animals. Dr. Martin was murdered in his home in Nairobi a month ago, on Feb. 4. He was 76. The motive is not yet clear, though the nature of his often dangerous work could potentially have made him a target. Other possible motives were a botched robbery and a local land dispute. Whatever the motive, the meaning is in his extraordinary life and the cause he devoted himself to.

The news had additional meaning for all of us working to save Veblen House. Research into the Whiton-Stuart family that built the house (the Veblens were the second owners) had uncovered a remarkable connection. At age 63, Robert, the son of the Whiton-Stuarts, married Edwina Atwell Martin, mother of Esmond, making Esmond the step-grandson of the builders of Veblen House. Esmond is the great grandson of Henry Phipps, boyhood friend and business partner of Andrew Carnegie. There is a botanical connection as well: Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden in Pittsburgh, PA.

As Dan Stiles described in one of countless tributes, Esmond worked closely with his wife Chryssee and colleague Lucy Vigne, often going under cover to "find the obscure open-air wildlife markets and back-alley shops and count the numbers of what he saw, note the prices, find out who was supplying and who was buying, for what purpose ..." Without this information, it would have been impossible to identify what countries were creating demand for poaching.

He was, it could be said, seeking to expose the perilous cultural addiction that has driven an unconscionable pillaging of nature. 

Again from the Smithsonian article:
"Among Martin’s contributions to the field: highlighting increased demand for rhino horn in Yemen in 2008, showing the drop in Japanese demand for ivory in 2010, detailing a burgeoning ivory trade in Hong Kong in 2011, and explaining the reduction in rhino poaching in Nepal in 2013. His most recent research documented how Laos’s and Vietnam’s ivory markets are booming."
There were tributes from Jane Goodall, disciple Tom Milliken, Brian Jackman, and many others. Brian Jackman begins his tribute this way:
"Snappily dressed like Tom Wolfe in a cream linen suit, a silk handkerchief spilling from his breast pocket and his silver hair flopping over his forehead, Esmond Bradley Martin, who was murdered in Nairobi last week, looked more like a literary critic than the sworn enemy of the illegal trade in ivory and rhino horn. He was a man with impeccable manners and a fondness for string quartets and antebellum architecture.

But beneath that deceptively fey exterior he was as tough as teak and totally fearless as he worked undercover, posing as a buyer to expose the smuggling cartels and their international trafficking routes between Africa and south-east Asia."
Additional homages from a Huffington Post article:
“Esmond was one of conservation’s great unsung heroes,” said Save the Elephants’ founder, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, who, along with Bradley Martin and Stiles documented the catastrophic fall in elephant numbers and brought the issue to the world stage. His meticulous work into ivory and rhino horn markets was conducted often in some of the world’s most remote and dangerous places and against intensely busy schedules that would have exhausted a man half his age … He was my friend for 45 years and his loss is a terrible blow both personally and professionally.” 
“He was a giant of a man in his field – quite literally, his tall, gangling figure and shock of white hair made him an unlikely undercover investigator,” said Greg Neale, ex-environment correspondent at the Telegraph. “But that was part of his role as he sought to understand the extent of the rhino horn (and ivory) trade, often putting himself at real risk in some of the world’s most lawless places to establish the economic and cultural background to the forces driving the rhino and elephant towards extinction.”
The Friends of Herrontown Woods has reached out to the Martin family with condolences for this tragic loss, and has expressed a desire to use Veblen House in part to honor Esmond's work and example in an ongoing way. From what we've learned, Esmond Bradley Martin exemplified the quiet yet indefatigable and profoundly influential approach for which Oswald Veblen was known.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Whiton-Stuarts--The Prescott Years

Everything about the lives of Jesse and Mary Whiton-Stuart (builders and first occupants of what came to be called Veblen House) seems to have an interesting twist. Each decade of their lives brings a new adventure. Around 1912, after spending the first decade of the 20th century establishing his real estate business in Manhattan, marrying and having two children, Jesse moved to Prescott, AZ. Here's Jesse's account, from a 1913 update he sent in to Harvard University, fifteen years after his class would have graduated.
I left Harvard on account of illness, and travelled when not in or preparing for Williams and Cambridge, England. I saw Russia, Armenia, all of Europe, the Far East three times, the Holy Land, Greece and was one of few that crossed Persia to the Gulf, also West and Africa. I was a real estate specialist for ten years in New York, and am still president of the J.P. Whiton-Stuart Company, New York, where I saved enough to buy a herd of cattle in Arizona. I now live on a horse’s back, riding over one hundred square miles of cattle range I rent from the United States government in the largest forest in the United States. Member: Union Club of New York, Yavapai Club of Prescott, Az.
Why did he leave New York? Well, we know from various sources that Jesse loved horses, the outdoors, and adventure. He makes no mention of the family going along, and one description handed down from his years in Princeton was that kids weren't his cup of tea. There's a newsclipping from Prescott's Weekly Journal-Miner, however, that says Mary bought 25 acres close to his in August, 1913.

And there's evidence that the kids lived there in another clipping, from 1937. By "a few years ago", they mean 20.

Jesse may have already gotten to know Arizona before he got married. His update sent to Harvard in 1908 says he "hunted as an avocation throughout the West."
"After leaving Harvard I travelled all over the Continent
and through the Far East, nearly always with a tutor or
professor, and am one of the very few having crossed over-
land through Persia, visiting missionaries and hermits who
had not seen a traveller for twenty-five years. Between these
travels I attended Williams College, Massachusetts, and
Cambridge University, England, principally for the courses
in mathematics. I also hunted as an avocation throughout
the West, and won many important events pigeon shooting
around New York. I then became associated with Douglas
Robinson in real estate, and am now in business for myself
as a specialist in selling large private residences."
By seeking hunting adventures out west as a young man, and later leaving New York City to start a ranch, Jesse was following in the footsteps of Teddy Roosevelt, who had written three books about his similar adventures thirty years prior. A National Park Service account tells of how a young Teddy Roosevelt headed west to hunt for bison, and ended up investing in the ranching business just as ranchers were crowding the prairies with cattle to fill the void left by the slaughter of bison. The overabundance of cattle led to overgrazing, followed by a massive dieoff of cattle during an unusually harsh winter. The carnage brought an end to Roosevelt's ranching business, and a new awareness of how human folly could lay waste even the vast lands of the West. For Roosevelt, the experience of hunting and ranching in the Dakota Badlands served as a right of passage to manhood, and spawned in Roosevelt the conservation ethic that would become so prominent when he became president. Jesse, growing up as an only child, tutored in his parents' home on Park Avenue, may have found similar rewards out west.

As with the previously unknown Natchez, Mississippi, birthplace of Jesse's wife Mary Marshall Ogden, Prescott gets more interesting the more one reads about it. There are distinctive rock outcroppings, and the 1.25 million acre Prescott Forest where Jesse had his ranch. Aldo Leopold, of Sand County Almanac fame, spent the early years of his career, from 1909 to 1924, in that area, writing management plans and handbooks for the forest service, including a report on Prescott National Forest in 1920. Fun facts about Leopold: he was born 80 miles south of where Veblen grew up in Iowa, and moved to the Princeton area a year before Veblen, to go to Lawrenceville School in 1904.

In more recent times, long after the Whiton-Stuarts left, an Ecosa Institute that teachers "innovative ecological design" was founded in Prescott by a disciple of Paolo Solari, whose nearby Arcosanti is an experimental alternative to urban sprawl. Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West is another hour south, established closer to Phoenix in 1937.

How things went for the Whiton-Stuart family out west is anyone's guess. Inquiries with the Arizona Historical Society and the Sharlot Hall Museum Library and Archives have not uncovered any information about the Whiton-Stuarts' stay in Prescott. It's probably pure coincidence that a lake in the photo, outside of Prescott, is called Watson Lake, and Jesse's stepfather's middle name is Watson.

Adding mystery is a March 17, 1912 notice in the Arizona Republic newspaper of Phoenix that has Jesse living in Tuscarora, Nevada, and in need of various dogs. This fits well with a description handed down from Princeton native Martha Cortelyou ("Marnie") Allen, of Jesse driving around Princeton in a station wagon with three Cocker spaniels in the back.
WANTS PET STOCK A Jerome man refers to Harry Welch, secretary of the board of trade, a letter from J. P. W. Stuart of Tuscarora Nevada, in which some local people may take a business interest. Mr. Stuart is desirous of securing a supply of pet stock, almost any kind but preferably dogs. Two Maltese kittens will satisfy him in the cat line but when It comes to dogs his taste is more varied. First he would like an English bloodhound pup. Then he wants two English or Gordon setter pups and a Chesapeake Bay dog pup or water spaniel. He says he does not want them for show purposes from which it is surmised he is more concerned about good blood than fancy points. Any Phoenix man carrying a line of dogs will do well to correspond with Mr. Stuart.
By 1920, the Whiton-Stuarts were back east, living in Morristown, NJ. The move to Princeton, along with the prefab house that would later become the Veblen House, would come a decade later.

Whiton-Stuart's reports back to Harvard--thus far our only samples of his writing--offer hints of why he and his wife decided to move to the Princeton Ridge lands in the 1930s. By then in his late 50s, Jesse might have been drawn to Princeton's golden age of mathematics, which Veblen had so much to do with, and also the prospect of riding his horses in a part of Princeton that has rock outcroppings vaguely reminiscent of Prescott.