Monday, June 3, 2019

Antique Septic Tank Found at Veblen House

This isn't the sort of discovery that will float everyone's boat, but it relates to a subject as profound as the most daunting enigma of mathematics or physics. Nature mastered the nutrient and carbon cycles long ago. If we're so smart, why haven't we? In nature, there is no such thing as waste. Everything is utilized, while our stubbornly linear economy leaves pollution and trash in its wake. As brilliant minds unlock the secrets of the universe, persistent questions on earth go unanswered.

A couple weeks ago, after yet another spring rain had left the Veblen House grounds even more saturated than before, it occurred to me that this would be the perfect time to explore how the Veblen House used to deal with nutrient cycling. Word had it that there was a septic tank somewhere on the grounds. They usually are buried a foot or so down, which requires probing the ground with a metal rod. With the soil so soft, a metal "tree feeder" worked well enough. You push it in here and there, hoping to encounter something solid. Someone with a good ear and feel can tell if it's a septic tank or a rock. Things start getting definitive when one makes multiple probes several feet this way or that and finds the same obstruction at the same depth. Once the tank's extent is determined, it's time to start digging.


That's what I did, and this is what I found, with the digging assistance of friend Andrew. The shape, though, was different from a normal septic tank--round rather than rectangular--and though the lid is concrete, the underlying tank itself appears to be made of brick and mortar. It appeared to be an antique form.



A likely likeness was seconds away on the internet. Type "septic tank history" into google, and this image pops up, along with a brief history of the septic tank.

A Frenchman named Mouras built the first one back in 1860. What may come as a surprise is that after ten years of use, he opened it up and found almost no solid waste. This fits with what I've heard about composting toilets, and also about the way we metabolize food. Our internal combustion is a magic show that turns solid fuel into invisible carbon dioxide gas. Much of what began as food escapes as "exhaust" each time we exhale. Run a 5K and you'll likely find yourself lighter, primarily from burning energy and breathing. We are made mostly of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen--all elements that come from the air. "Dust to dust" may be a memorable saying, but there is very little of the earth in us, or what we leave behind.

There are other structures on the Veblen grounds that suggest an even earlier version of a septic system. It's not clear if the latest find was still in use when the house was last occupied, or if a more modern version is buried somewhere nearby. Figuring out how all of these functioned will tell a story that continues to this day, as humanity struggles to emulate nature's marvelously sustainable cycling of nutrients and carbon.

There's always hope on the horizon, as an Australian company that's changing the world "from the bottom up" offers a composting toilet to replace chemical porta-potties in Australia, and a few options exist on the fringes of the linear economy in the U.S..

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Astronomer John Irwin: A Familial and Veblen Connection


One of my favorite astronomers from my youth turns out to have had a connection to Oswald Veblen. John Irwin was a colleague of my father's who loved kids and hiking as much as he loved astronomy. He'd stop by Yerkes Observatory for American Astronomical Society meetings, and my older sister remembers him getting down on his hands and knees in the living room of the director's house and giving her a horse ride. As a kid growing up around astronomers, you remember those few that would come down to your level, and John was one of those who would literally do that.

I remember him from family visits to Chile in the mid-1960s, where he was living with his wife on top of the next mountain over from Tololo, where my father would have observing runs. (Note: In reading recently a bio of the well-known popularizer of astronomy, Neil deGrasse Tyson, I noticed that he did his graduate observing at Tololo.) John was doing the site surveying work that lays the groundwork, so to speak, for siting new observatories in the northern Chilean desert--one of the best places in the world to do astronomy. One of the mountains he explored, Las Campanas, would two decades later be the site for the Magellan telescopes--my father's last design project.

One thing observatories in the desert need is a water supply, and one day John took my brother and me on a hike down the mountain to check the flow in the creek from which Tololo drew its water. We were hiking down a steep slope when I lost my footing and did what must have looked like a wild improvisatory dance as I slid down the mountainside, trying to break my momentum. When I finally came to a stop, unscathed, he congratulated me on my footwork. That sort of compliment means a lot to a kid, and it's always stayed with me.

He told us about a mountain that had many false summits, that is, the climber would look up and think the summit close at hand, only to discover that the mountain continues up and there is much hiking still to do. A climber, tight against the mountainside with limited view of what's above, can be fooled multiple times before finally reaching the top. That story has come to resonate with life and work in general. John loved mountains so much that he celebrated his 85th birthday by climbing his favorite mountain, Mount Whitney, in the Sierra Nevadas of California. His father's family was from Philadelphia, and claimed Ben Franklin as an ancestor.

Along with his Veblenesque combining of intellect and a love of the outdoors, John has a familial connection to Princeton and its math department. He was born in Princeton in 1909, while his mathematician father, Frank Irwin, was serving an instructorship from 1908-11, alongside Veblen, who had arrived three years earlier. Both were hired by Henry Fine, for whom the PU mathematics building is named.

As a young man, John lived for awhile in Iowa City, Veblen's home town, and was one of the first astronomers to write, back in 1948, about the potential of the early computers that Veblen had done so much to bring into being.

During one of those visits to the mountains of Chile in the mid-1960s, my family drove one evening over to the mountain where John and his wife had their house. After dinner we played Hearts. I'm guessing it was his favorite card game, and quickly became ours. "I smell smoke," John would say ominously, when he surmised that someone was trying to flush the queen of spades. Other things John liked to say were "Much grass, poor flavor"--his comic play on the Spanish "muchas gracias, por favor"--and "We're off in a pile of monkey vomit," spoken with mock grandness at the beginning of a journey, lest we take human enterprise too seriously.

At some point that evening, I went outside and walked to the edge of the mountain, maneuvering around boulders and the droppings of goats. At the edge, lit by a deep universe of stars and moon, was a frozen ocean, extending out as far as I could see. It was the top of the massive cloud of fog that would move inland each night from the Pacific coast, bringing moisture to the desert. I wish everyone could have such vistas growing up, where the landscape draws your eye to look farther and farther into the distance, with the quality of the air the only limit. Maybe, with vistas like that to open up our minds and expand our thinking, we might take better care of that thin skin of air that comprises the earth's atmosphere, and take more of an interest in what lies ahead.

John Henry Barrows Irwin completed his itinerant astronomical career at Kean University, halfway between where his father grew up in Englewood, NJ, and his birthplace in Princeton. For retirement, he moved with his wife to Tucson, where he spent his last 20 years, climbing mountains.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Kuiper Belt and Veblen House--a Chance Connection

Here's a mix of recent news and personal past with a chance Veblen House connection. Kuiper, a name familiar to me from childhood, was in the news as 2019 began. In the wee hours of January 1st, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flew by "Ultima Thule," an object 4 billion miles from Earth in what is called the Kuiper Belt, home to Pluto and other frozen objects in what has been described as "a vast rim of primordial debris encircling our solar system."

The term "Kuiper Belt" was new to me, but astronomer Gerard Kuiper for whom it is named was a colleague of my father's at the University of Chicago's Yerkes Observatory. Kuiper's best known student was Carl Sagan, an astronomer who later did much to popularize science through his Cosmos television series and many books. From my recent correspondence with one of Sagan's friends and fellow student, Peter Pesch, it looks like Sagan was pursuing an unusual route in astronomy even back then: "Kuiper was exclusively interested in the solar system, which few of us were, except, of course, Carl Sagan."


In the photo, my father Al Hiltner and Gerard Kuiper are 2nd and 4th from the left, respectively, with Nobel prize winner Chandra first on the left.

Kuiper's name also popped up in a much more obscure location when I was researching the life of the Whiton-Stuarts, first owners of what became known as the Veblen House. The wife, Mary (Marshall Ogden) Whiton-Stuart, spent her last years in Tucson, AZ. Kuiper moved there in 1960 to found the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. Here's a snippet from a previous post on this website:

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." 
Mary was an eighth generation descendant not of Mayflower pilgrims, but of a pilgrim who settled in what would become New Jersey, John Ogden.

Update: In another unexpected link between Yerkes Observatory and Veblen House, I recently contacted a U. of Chicago alum who had written a strongly worded letter to the alumni magazine lamenting the university's having moved out of the observatory. The author, Daniel Campion, happens to live in Iowa City, where Oswald Veblen grew up. Daniel took a break from his writing to research Veblen's childhood home, which will be the subject of another post. He also sent me a "squib" he had published--a short poem about Ultima Thule called "Marriage Made in Heaven."