Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Veblen House--The Terra Cotta Connection

Among all the photos that Oswald Veblen took of the Veblen House and garden back in the 1950s is this photo of what looks like an abandoned plant. I would look at this photo and shrug, then move on to all the others showing Elizabeth Veblen with her daffodils, the caretaker's impressive piles of split firewood, or different angles of the house.

Recently, while researching the life of the Veblens' longtime caretaker, Max Latterman, I found a 1985 Trenton Times article that mentioned that Max had been an unemployed tile factory worker when he "first joined the estate, then owned by a wealthy family from New York." That would be the Whiton-Stuarts, who built and lived in the house before selling it to the Veblens in 1941. Max is the unifying character in the Veblen House story, having cared for the property through three owners: the Whiton-Stuarts, the Veblens, and then Mercer County Parks, which rented the house to arborist Bob Wells and family.

Having lived on Copper Mine Road near Rocky Hill, Max most likely worked for the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company, which had a plant in Rocky Hill until it closed in 1932. This from the Franklin Township Library website, with the same text as in the book, The Millstone Valley Through Time:
In 1894, the Excelsior Terra Cotta Company built a factory on 100-plus acres along Canal Road. In 1907, this became part of the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company -- the world's largest manufacturer of architectural terra cotta. Atlantic's terra cotta adorns the Woolworth Building in New York City and the roof of the Philadelphia Art Museum as well as dozens of buildings that were once dubbed Manhattan’s 'Terra Cotta Skyline.' This factory closed in 1932.

This photo, courtesy of the Franklin Township Public Library, shows what the plant looked like around 1910. It's not clear if the terra cotta for the Woolworth Building and the Philadelphia Museum of Art had its origins in Rocky Hill's clay (Perth Amboy had the company's main plant), but the timing of the Rocky Hill plant's closing fits our story, since Whiton-Stuart bought the land for what would later be Veblen House in 1931. But the Trenton Times article about Max Latterman says he began working for Whiton-Stuart in 1927. Another source says that Rocky Hill's population dropped by half around 1927, which suggests there may have been a big layoff at the plant at that point.

There is, then, a mystery as to whether the builder of Veblen House arrived in Princeton five years before actually building the house. It's conceivable that Whiton-Stuart rented the land for five years before buying it from its owner, Thomas Baker. Since the Whiton-Stuarts were in the same social circles as the Pyne family of Drumthwacket, perhaps Whiton-Stuart was partnering with Agnes Pyne and her horse farm on Herrontown Road well before he and his wife Mary moved to Princeton.

(A bit of an aside: No doubt competing with the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company back in the early 20th century was the American Terra Cotta Corporation in Crystal Lake, Illinois, which may well have made the elaborate and whimsical terra cotta used on the edifice I grew up next to in Wisconsin--an intellectual enclave with some of the feel of the Institute for Advanced Study--called Yerkes Observatory. Only now, through research on a German immigrant to New Jersey named Max Latterman, does that lovely tan color I grew up next to have a name.

Here's a photo of the American Terra Cotta Ceramic Works in Illinois, which has more of the look of the Veblen photo above.)

Born in 1905, Latterman immigrated to the U.S. from Germany in the 1920s. It appears that research done by Richard Velt, published in "Moving Beyond the Factory Gates: The Industrial Archaeology of New Jersey's Terra Cotta Industry," could help us understand Max's experience as a tile plant worker, and the role of the terra cotta industry in New Jersey. Here's the abstract for the article:
This paper examines the rise and fall of New Jersey's architectural terra cotta industry (c. 1870-1930) through its products. Particular consideration is paid to the factors leading to its growth, the methods employed in manufacturing terra cotta, and the part played by new European immigrants in the success of this industry. Although urban renewal has removed most of the terra cotta factories from the modern landscape, their products still remain. Here attention is focused on the architectural terra cotta that colored urban skylines at the turn of the century and the unusual ceramic gravemarkers that dot the Clay District's cemeteries. These seemingly disparate sources, examined in their historic context, provide interesting insights into the skills, craftsmanship, and ethnicities of the terra cotta workers. 

Interestingly, the historic 1860 House in Montgomery, NJ has behind it a building made of ceramic tile.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

When the Body Teaches the Mind

I had a Veblenesque experience recently when the opportunity came along to play the role of mentor. It began when a young man named Mariano showed some interest in learning how to chop wood. He's 16 and was visiting from Buenos Aires, where the opportunities to chop wood surely are few. Yet wood is enshrined in Argentinian culture as the fuel for asado--an often elaborate barbecue in restaurants and backyards that connects urban culture to its pastoral roots of cow-herding gauchos roaming the pampas.

Part of what makes Oswald Veblen distinct among scholars is the strong pastoral sensibility he carried with him into academia. There was his youth spent in Iowa, and before that the farms that his father grew up on--a progression of farms hewed from the wilds of the Wisconsin and Minnesota frontiers by Oswald's Norwegian immigrant grandfather. How might this heritage have influenced Veblen and the town, university, and Institute he so actively inhabited?

My new friend Mariano saw the abundant stacked firewood in our backyard, and asked how I managed to split it all. It was a curious process, teaching him to chop wood, because when I tried to explain how to do it, I realized I didn't really know. My body knows, however, so in order to teach his body how to chop wood, I needed to consult with my own, and then translate my muscles' memory and wisdom into instructions that he could then communicate to his own body. In other words, our minds were mere conduits for knowledge stored in one body that needed to become learned by another.

My body taught me how to hold the axe, how to slide the left hand down the handle as I raise the axe above my head, how to position the legs and use the larger muscle groups to gain power, all of which I then passed along to him. It took awhile for his muscles to catch on. Learning is sometimes a process of finding out how many ways one can do something wrong before the body agrees to do it right. Before long, he had become accurate enough in his swing to split the wood in two, and showed tremendous satisfaction in the accomplishment.

That I know how to split wood at all owes most likely to my father, who became an astronomer after growing up on a farm in northeastern Ohio. My grandfather, like Veblen's, was a farmer and carpenter. That physicality and tradition of building/growing I have then carried forward into an increasingly urbanized world. It can be said to be a heritage and set of skills passed not mind to mind but body to body, and comes in handy if you happen to buy a house with a woodstove, or wish to repair another physical legacy: the house and cottage the Veblens left to the public trust.

This interplay between body and mind can be seen at many levels in Oswald Veblen's life and legacy. Veblen did a lot of mentoring of young mathematicians in his day, but his intellectual pursuits were deeply connected to a passion for the physical world. That passion can be seen in his love of woodchopping, of the buildings he brought into being, and of the nature he worked to preserve.

We don't have a photo of Veblen with an axe, but we know he liked to lead his colleagues at the Institute on brush-clearing expeditions in the Institute Woods--the land he did so much to acquire for the Institute in the 1930s and 40s. Among his brilliant recruits for woodchopping was Paul Dirac, known as "the Mozart of Science," who carried on the tradition after Veblen was gone.

The grounds around Veblen's house, across town from the Institute, included great piles of firewood--the product of caretaker Max Latterman's labors. That wood fueled the woodstove in the cottage, where Veblen had his study, and the fireplace in the Veblen House.

The firewood is long gone, but the buildings Veblen helped bring into being-- the university's Jones Hall, and Fuld Hall at the Institute for Advanced Study--still stand. Those buildings can be seen as bodies, designed to support and inform the intellectual missions of the University and the Institute. Without Veblen's vision and persistence, the Institute for Advanced Study might have remained without a "body" to inhabit, since its other originators thought the Institute could exist without any actual buildings to house it. And it was Veblen's design of Jones Hall (originally called Fine Hall) that brought together mathematicians who had previously been working out of their homes.

The nature Veblen worked to preserve--600 acres for the Institute Woods and 100 acres for Herrontown Woods--is also a body, to be walked through and interacted with.

As people become more urbanized and lose touch with the mechanics of living off the land, trees tend to get romanticized, to the point that a saw and an axe can seem to be the enemy. The slaughter of mature forests worldwide has intensified this view, but utilizing the trees that come down in our "urban forest" brings a deeper level of understanding and appreciation. There's a lot to learn about the wood. Straight-grained trees like ash or red maple, black locust or red oak, split relatively easily, but each section of trunk or branch is different. Some have knots that resist splitting. Some sections of the tree may have been under stress due to the tilt of the tree--a stress that manifests as a more twisted grain that's harder to split. Small cracks in the wood can give clues as to where to aim the axe. Sometimes a section that should split easily does not. If the wood doesn't split on the first stroke, the sound the wood makes when struck can indicate whether it's worth persisting. There's a deep sound that is beautiful to the ear of a wood splitter. That sound says the wood is ready to split and will succumb with another blow or two.

Part of the mentoring of Mariano was to listen for that sound, as we prepared the bodies of trees to feed the woodstove that helps heat the home I inhabit, which in turn inhabits and gives back to the body of nature. In this way, the body in all its manifestations forms and informs our world.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

A Mingling of Whiton-Stuarts and Pynes in 1920s Morristown

The Whiton-Stuarts, builders and first residents of what would later become known as the Veblen House, are a fascinating family to research. They were wealthy, idiosyncratic, peripatetic, adventurous. The husband, Jesse, dropped out of Harvard to travel the world, then settled down long enough to get married and build a prosperous company selling high-end real estate in Manhattan. The marriage endured, but their means and apparent restlessness caused them to make frequent shifts to new locales. It may have been Jesse's passion for the outdoors, particularly hunting, horses and hounds, that prompted a move to a cattle ranch in Prescott, Arizona when their kids were growing up. Moving back east, they lived in Morristown, seemingly timed with Jesse's stepfather's last years, but also lived in Greenwich, CT, before moving to Princeton in the early 1930s. Their two children each married three times, into families of prominence and wealth.

Our research into the Whiton-Stuarts always swings back to two central questions: What prompted their move to Princeton, and what is the story behind the prefab house they brought along with them from Morristown, NJ? The answer to the latter almost certainly resides in the microfilm of old newspapers in the Morristown and Morris Township Public Library. Those newspapers have yet to be digitized, so we're first harvesting whatever clues to their whereabouts and lifestyles can be found on the internet.

A few tidbits recently popped up in some digitized issues of a newspaper called the "Morristown Topics." It was found in a google search that included the Whiton-Stuarts and the Freylinghuysens. A researcher at the Morristown library had checked the 1917 Morristown city directory and found the Whiton-Stuarts listed as living on Whippany Road. The summer estate donated by the Freylinghuysen family to Morris County in 1969 to create Freylinghuysen Arboretum borders Whippany Road, so it's likely they knew the Whiton-Stuarts. The Whippany River Club, of which Whiton-Stuart was a member, is named after the river that flows through Morristown.

Though the Morristown Topics was published from 1921 to 1928, only the first year's issues could be found online. In those were 8 references to the Whiton-Stuarts, providing clues to their upscale social circles and Jesse's passion for horseback riding. Newspapers back then tracked closely the whereabouts of people of wealth and status, making it easy to see who was socializing with whom.

One possible answer as to why the Whiton-Stuarts moved to Princeton in the early 1930s, and ended up living next to the Pyne's horse farm, is that they moved in the same social circles as the Pynes who were based in Princeton. A list of those who took part in fox hunts in the Morristown area in the fall of 1920 includes Jesse Whiton-Stuart and two members of the Pyne family: Grafton and Rivington.

The major benefactor of Princeton University, Moses Taylor Pyne, was related to three men named Percy Rivington Pyne. He was son of Percy Rivington Pyne I, brother of Percy Rivington Pyne II, and uncle to Percy Jr. and Grafton Howland Pyne.  Grafton was Rivington Jr.'s older brother, having been born in 1890.

Thanks to Paul Davis of the Historical Society of Princeton, I have learned that Princeton had its own version, the Stony Brook Hunt Club, that continued through 1937. The list of members for the 1931-2 season shows the Whiton-Stuarts as members, along with the wives of Moses Taylor Pyne and his son, M. Taylor Pyne, Jr. The latter is likely Agnes, who owned the horse farm in eastern Princeton next to the land the Whiton-Stuarts built their home on--what we now know as Veblen House and Herrontown Woods. Other names on the membership list include Richard Stockton, III.

The lives of the Whiton-Stuarts and the Pynes may have intersected in New York as well, where they both had homes on Park Avenue. A connection can be found two generations prior, when Jesse's step-grandfather signed a letter to Congress during the infamous hung election of 1876, also co-signed by ancestors of the Pynes and Marquands.


Gigs I've played as a musician have sometimes landed me in one or another of the old country clubs, where paintings on the walls depicted fox hunts. Why, I would wonder, would people want to dress up like that and chase a fox?

(A bit of an aside: Just visited the Institute for Advanced Study, and was surprised to find two paintings of this sort on the wall of the room in Fuld Hall where elite scholars meet every afternoon for tea (see photo). Among other decor in the room is a bust of Einstein.)

The Morristown Topics offers some insights into that world of conspicuous leisure, which may or may not be the same world Oswald Veblen's uncle Thorstein wrote about 20 years prior in "The Theory of the Leisure Class."

The aim here is to describe rather than judge the culture of the wealthy in the 1920s, of which the Whiton-Stuarts and Pynes were a part. It's tempting to look back and judge those who found sport in a fox's distress and (sometimes) demise. But any judging must be done with full awareness that our own era will be the most harshly judged of all, as we knowingly alter the global climate. We can question past behaviors, but any notions of moral superiority are illusory.

Fox hunting season extended from November into April. The red foxes that now populate our neighborhoods, nonchalantly trotting down our streets and nesting beneath the neighbor's house, were originally introduced from Europe for the purpose of fox hunts. The native gray fox is a less sporting quarry, since it can quickly elude the hounds by climbing a tree--a skill red foxes do not have. The fox was pursued by hounds and horses through a mixed landscape of forest and fenced farms that tested all participants' riding ability. There was cooperation among landowners who would make their land conducive to the hunt, and the fall/winter hunting season presumably minimized any trampling of crops. Wire fences were "paneled" with wood to protect the horses from the barbs as they jumped. The chase began when the hounds "found," i.e. picked up a scent in a "covert"--a thicket where foxes often hide out during the day. The chase would end when the fox was "run to earth," meaning it disappeared down a hole, or more gruesomely when it was caught and killed by the hounds.

This account of a hunt, from the first issue of the Morristown Topics on Dec. 31, 1920, gives a sense of the experience:
The members of the Essex Fox Hounds are hoping that the snows and rains of the first of this week will not close an enjoyable season. The hunters have had several excellent runs, two record breakers, and very few blank days, one of the most famous taking place on Thanksgiving Day when the hounds, meeting at Hickory Tree, found very shortly after the meet in the woods, north of the river. The fox led them across the farms of Messrs Harry Hoy and S. Harold Freeman and on to the neighborhood of Pottersville where he went to earth after a run of ten miles with only three checks, except for a few moments when the field was held up by wire and winter wheat. The hounds were in sight practically all of the time. Another run, the hounds found late in the day in a field south of the river. The fox ran to earth a hundred yards beyond the fins but was dugout and led a glorious chase across the Bedminstjer-Pluckamin road, up the Schley hill and then circled around the woods on the summit. The run lasted almost two hours, darkness causing its close. Among those who have ridden this fall are: Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Symington, Mr- and Mrs. J. McAlpin Pyle, J. P. Whiton Stuart, Earle N. Cutler, LeEoy Whitney, Mr. and Mrs. R. H. Williams Jr., Mr- and Mrs. Crawford Barton, Mr. and Mrs. Winston Chanler, Mr. and Mrs. Fred W. Jones, Mr. and Mrs- Hagan, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Scribner, Jr., Mr. and Mrs. K. B. Schley, Miss Emily Stevens, Miss Mary Stevens, Miss Agnes Fowler, The Misses Brice, the Misses Hawle, Dr. A. S. Knight, A. Hyde, F. Van, S. Hyde, A. Musgrave Hyde, Rivington Pyne, Grafton Pyne, Arthur A- Fowler, Alexander Philips, William A. Larned, George Meseroy, DeCoursey Fales, Richard A. Gambril.
Reports from Somerset Hills in December, 1921, nearly a year later, illustrate that the fox hunts could be perilous for the hunters as well:
Mr. Whiton Stuart had a fall and broke his arm. The fracture was impacted and it was with considerable difficulty that Dr. Green had him carried to Mr. George Brice's house from which he was later taken to All Souls' Hospital. 
Mr. J. P. Whiton-Stuart, who has been at All Souls' Hospital recovering from a serious injury received on the hunting Held, has left for New York, where he will undergo an operation.  
Mr. Whiton-Stewart, who broke his arm while hunting with the Essex Fox Hounds last month, is reported as doing well at his home in Greenwich. 
Other mentions of the Whiton-Stuarts are about travels and schooling for their son, Robert:
Robert Whiton Stuart will return on Wednesday, January 5, to the Stuyvesant School, Warrington, Va. 
Jan. 21, 1921: Mr. and Mrs. J. P. Whiton-Stuart have left for their apartment on Park avenue, where they will spend the remainder of the winter 
Sept. 23, 1921: Mrs. J. P. Whiton Stuart was among those returning from Europe on the "Lapland"
Mixed with the conspicuous leisure is evidence of people achieving remarkable things for the public good. In the Jan. 21 issue, talk of sport segues into news of a woman who fought to protect the cliff dwellings of Colorado and to found Mesa Verde National Park.
The extreme cold of the last few days will cause many to feel the lure of a mild climate where life is filled •with all the sports of the great out-of-doors—golf, polo, fishing, swimming, hunting and aeroplaning, that new pastime which has not yet lost its novelty. 
Mrs. Gilbert McCIurg, formerly a resident of Morristown, has been spending a few days with her sister, Miss Donaghe. Mrs. McCIurg, who recently made her home in Colorado Springs and Stonington, Conn., is known as a writer and lecturer, her special work dealing with pre-historic ruins of America. The public knew very little of the historic value of these ruins previous to the founding of the Cliff Dwelling Association, of which Mrs. McCIurg was the originator and which has now been placed under the protection of the Government. Mrs. McCIurg has returned to her summer home in Stonington, where she has purchased an interesting building of the Georgian period. 
Virginia McClurg was also a member of the Mayflower Descendants--an organization that included Jesse's wife, born Mary Marshall Ogden.

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 Bill 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 soon 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.

Date: January 12, 1966
Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, John Irwin Slide Collection
Catalog ID: Irwin John B4

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."