Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Oswald Veblen Profiled in Princeton Magazine on His 140th Birthday

On this, the summer of Oswald Veblen's 140th birthday, the story of his life and legacy made it into the radiant glossy pages of the Princeton Magazine. An article entitled The Extraordinary Legacy of Oswald Veblen by Don Gilpin captures the breadth and depth of Veblen's 80 years on the planet, most of it spent in Princeton, first at Princeton University and then at the Institute for Advanced Study.

Gilpin weaves in quotes from Steve Batterson's article, “The Vision, Insight, and Influence of Oswald Veblen," and from Princeton University President Eisgruber's 2020 State of the University report.

What we've come to know is that Princeton would not be Princeton, and the Institute would not be the Institute, without the vision and quiet persistence of this man. He brought something of his Norwegian ancestry and midwestern egalitarian sensibilities eastward from Iowa, while his wife to be, Elizabeth Richardson, brought her charm, tea, and love of gardening westward from England. They met in Princeton and together they changed the world for the better, near and far.

The article also tells the story of our nonprofit, the Friends of Herrontown Woods, which is applying a dose of Veblen's quiet persistence to restore and revivify the Veblens' physical legacy--the house, cottage and 95 acres they left behind for the public to enjoy. We now have the lease the article mentioned, and can proceed with repairs to the 1931 house and the 1875 cottage, both of which have been patiently awaiting the attention they deserve.

The photos in the article are courtesy of the Institute for Advanced Study archives, including this photo of the Veblens at the American Mathematical Society's 1950 International Congress, presided over by Veblen at age 70, as he was retiring from the IAS. Now, twice as distant in time from Veblen's birth in the hill country of Iowa, Don Gilpin's article is a fitting tribute to a legacy that keeps on giving.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Open Space Beginnings in Princeton

Thus far, the 1950s appear to mark the beginning of formal open space preservation in Princeton. The Marquand family donated 17 acres in 1953, "for use as a public park, playground and recreational area for the benefit of the people of . . . Princeton and its environments.” As farms were giving way to housing developments on the east side of Princeton, Mrs. M. Taylor Pyne, Jr. donated land in 1956 to Trinity Church--what we now know as the All Saints Church tract.

It was the Veblens who donated the first land intended to be preserved in its natural state, a year later in 1957. The Veblens had acquired their land in the 1930s and '40s, next door to Mrs. Pyne, Jr's horse farm on Herrontown Road. At the same time, from 1936-45, Oswald Veblen was busy convincing the Institute for Advanced Study to acquire the 600+ acres that became known as the Institute Woods

Funding for open space acquisition appears to have come later. The Mercer County Parks Commission had yet to form when the Veblens donated the first 81 acres. Up to that point, Mercer County had developed a golf course in Trenton and received a six acre donation of land near Washington Crossing used by scouts. The Veblens' decision to step up, and the subsequent formation of the Parks Commission, had in part been a response to a survey by the National Recreation Association, which found the county was "generally deficient in all types of recreation and park areas". The county would then point to Herrontown Woods as evidence that it was beginning to address this deficiency.

The 1960s began with the expansion of Herrontown Woods by Mercer County, and closed with the founding of the nonprofit Friends of Princeton Open Space in 1969. DR Greenway was formed 20 years later, in 1989. The private acquisitions in the 1940s and donations in the 1950s formed the core holdings that later partnerships of government and nonprofits would then build upon. The Institute Woods was saved from development in 1997. A substantial portion of the All Saints Church tract was preserved in more recent years by DR Greenway. Due to these successful collaborations, Herrontown Woods is now at the center of a long corridor of open space, with Autumn Hill Reservation to the east and the All Saints and Richiardi tracts to the west.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Building a House, Building Mathematics

When Oswald Veblen arrived in Princeton in 1905, having completed his PhD in mathematics in Chicago, he may have envisioned American academics much like this representation of the house in which his grandparents and 8 children had spent the winter of 1866 on the Minnesota prairie. For that first winter in what could barely be called a house, they lived in the basement, surrounded by a foundation and sheltered by a temporary roof. A large fireplace stood at one end, a cooking stove at the other, with a well dug in the middle. They made it through the winter, but in Oswald's grandfather Thomas's mind was the two-story house they would ultimately live in.

By the time winter arrived the next year, in 1867, Thomas had built the shell of the house, which he would elaborate on until it reached its final form in 1870, ten years before Oswald was born.

American mathematics in 1905 was like a basement on the frontier compared to the glorious universities in Europe that gave Oswald a model for what could be realized over time. Grandfather Thomas built his house in four years. Mathematics in America took longer, reaching parity with Europe and a golden age in Princeton in the 1930s.

Along the way, surely drawing on his grandfather's life spent building a series of four midwestern farms from the ground up, Oswald contributed to the evolution of mathematics, intellectually and institutionally, bringing talented mathematicians together and even designing the building that Princeton's mathematics department and the new Institute for Advanced Study would both call home in the 1930s--Fine Hall.

In an article by William C. Melton entitled "Thorstein Veblen and the Veblens", from which these photos are taken, the descriptions of Oswald's grandfather give a sense of an open and flexible mind, a bottomless work ethic, and family generosity. Thomas was "actively interested in innovations." He and wife Kari "were virtual dynamos until late in their lives." Thomas had a "penchant for making continual modifications when these seemed desirable as well as his evident lack of commitment to conventional construction norms-including straight lines, ninety-degree angles, and such things." Most telling, given Oswald's initiative to find a safe haven in the U.S. for displaced European scholars in the 1930s, is a description of his grandparents on the Minnesota frontier as "extremely generous in opening their doors to newly arrived immigrants (including relatives) who needed a place to stay."

Oswald, who had no children, inherited these qualities and applied them to making mathematicians and mathematics his family and his home.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Oswald Veblen's Legacy Celebrated in Princeton University's 2020 State of the University Report

(This is a repost from the companion site, FOHW.org, Friends of Herrontown Woods)

2020 is looking like a good year for Oswald Veblen, whose 140th birthday we'll be celebrating in June. For those who like numbers, mathematicians or not, Veblen's life and career are framed by round numbers. He was born in 1880, began graduate work in mathematics in 1900, became emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in 1950, and died at his Brookin, Maine cottage in 1960.

Some deeply gratifying news came recently in the form of Princeton University's annual State of the University letter, in which President Eisgruber puts the legacy of Oswald Veblen front and center in a moving discourse on "the values and qualities that define us as a university."

Eisgruber describes Veblen as "a faculty member with tremendous vision and constructive energy" who "probably did as much as anyone to reform and improve this University." That's some high praise.

As Princeton University embarks on a new round of building, President Eisgruber pointed to Veblen's visionary role nearly a century ago:

"At a time when many Princeton professors had no offices and worked from home, Veblen imagined something novel: a building dedicated to mathematics and designed to generate intellectual community and exchange."

"Oswald Veblen understood that people are the heart and soul of a great university, and he also understood that thoughtfully designed buildings can stimulate the collaborations, activity, insights, and friendships that animate a scholarly community. His vision for the old Fine Hall, and its timely completion, attracted brilliant thinkers to Princeton and forged a scholarly legacy that remains vibrant almost a century later."
Citing Elyse Graham's articles in the Princeton Alumni Weekly about Veblen, the State of the University report also praises "Veblen's humanitarian courage," demonstrated through his early efforts to aid the careers of brilliant women and African American mathematicians, and his
"critical role in rescuing Jewish scholars from persecution in Europe. Veblen worked with the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars to accommodate refugees at Princeton and elsewhere in the country. The scholars whom Veblen helped bring to Princeton included professors of mathematics, physics, economics, and art history."
The Friends of Herrontown Woods first heard that Veblen would be featured in the President's report a couple weeks prior, when the university's science writer contacted us to ask permission to use some of the photos on our VeblenHouse.org website. As our nonprofit begins repairs on the long-neglected Veblen House and Cottage in Herrontown Woods, we are tremendously heartened to witness the ongoing rediscovery of Oswald Veblen's quietly extraordinary legacy, beginning with writings and presentations by George Dyson and others at the Turing Centennial Conference in 2012, articles by Alyse Graham in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, and now this wonderful tribute to Veblen woven into President Eisgruber's State of the University letter.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

A Dry Stone Waller Visits Veblen House

It was an improbable chain of events that brought a dry stone waller to Veblen House. First, the local Town Topics newspaper published a new year's day article about our latest progress in saving Veblen House. Of the photos I sent them, they chose this one--featuring the circular stone horserun with the Veblen House in the background--to publish with the article. Little did we know how and where that article might travel.

Ten days later, a message came via our Friends of Herrontown Woods website:
"Hello!! I am writing to you because a friend of mine from the Dry Stone Walling Association of Canada sent me a link to your article in the Town Topics about rebuilding the walls at the Veblen House. I am a dry stone waller from Vermont. The irony is that I grew up in Princeton as a child (ages 5 to 18) and lived down the street from Herrontown Woods!! I Went to Riverside School and Herrontown was just a bike ride away for me and my friends. Luckily we grew up without electronic devices and riding your bike and exploring the woods (and Lake Carnegie) was what we did. In fact, I have done the creek walk that connects Herrontown to Carnegie. These explorations of the woods was what eventually lead me to Vermont. 
I am now a dry stone waller here in Vermont and travel all over for work and dry stone festivals. I am also a teacher at The Stone Trust here in Dummerston, Vermont. Please check out the website. You will see that we are an educational center teaching the art and craft of dry stone walling. I would love to help with the restoration of the walls at the Veblen House. Their are many ways to go about restoring old walls and I would could help if you're interested. Have you thought about a workshop? I have been a part of many public workshops that people learn the craft and as walls get rebuilt. 
Have a great day and stay warm.
Torben Larsen
Windham Growers Inc. 
Herrontown Woods is most strikingly a combination of trees, rocks, and water. In my environmental work I've encountered organizations focused on trees or water, but never stones. At this point, I wasn't sure whether the walls he was talking about were the foundation walls for the buildings or the many rock walls in the woods left from a past agricultural era. A look at The Stone Trust website, whose motto is "In stones we trust," clarified what a dry stone waller does. The website opens up a new world where assemblages of stones--functional or fanciful--are juxtaposed with assemblages of people. Their faces glow with pride and satisfaction that seems rooted in the outdoor walls they have just constructed. Through collective action, the people become part of something larger than themselves, as do the stones that become part of a lovely stone wall. The way the photos are composed, the people connect to something elemental, while the stones seem to gain in humanity. Lately I've been musing that there is something soulful in wood that rubs off on those who work with it. Might stones have a gift to impart to us as well?

I contacted Torben, and a week or so later when he happened to be in NJ he came by for a visit. Soon he was explaining the logic of a stone wall. Gravity and friction are key to building a wall that will last 500 years. Stack "one on two," which is to say place each rock so that it straddles two rocks below. That way, part of its weight will rest on each of the two rocks. "One on three" is a weaker arrangement, because one of the three rocks underneath will be loose.

And be sure to "break your seams." Some areas of the horserun have running seams. The photo shows a couple running seams on the left, where a vertical line runs down through multiple layers of stone. Resting each stone on two stones below breaks the seams. Still, the horserun has endured pretty well, despite breaking some of the rules.

Each country has its own style of walling. I explained that the horserun was reportedly built by a German immigrant back in the 1930s, though it's unclear if he had brought any German stone-building heritage with him when he came to the States.

Taking a closer look at the horserun, I noticed its core is made up of smaller stones embraced by the larger stones lining the inner and outer faces of the wall. Torben called this "hearting."

Maybe all the king's horses and all the king's men will have more luck repairing this "check end" than they had with Humpty Dumpty. The sheer weight of the stones will pose a challenge, though. Torben said that this particular kind of stone weighs 175 pounds per cubic foot. He had some ideas about how the stones were originally lifted into place, but that didn't make it into my notes.

We then took a walk through Herrontown Woods, which surely is a kind of heaven for Torben, with all its boulders. While I tend to see the boulders as nature's artwork not to be disturbed, each with distinct shape and pattern of moss and lichen, Torben was seeing the rocks more as they must have been viewed in the 19th or early 20th centuries,

when the diabase boulders were being quarried for stone. One area of Herrontown Woods is pock-marked with the holes where boulders once stood, before they were split into pieces and carted away for various uses.

This block of stone must have marked the end of the quarry era, as it was never taken. Torben called the series of holes along the cracks "feather and wedging."

To be a stone waller is to be part of a network few of us have ever heard of. Torben is certified in Britain, and travels there periodically for stone walling events. Every now and then a gathering of rock wallers will do what Torben calls a "crazy build," like a "30 foot bridge, dry-laid," which is to say it's a bridge with a 30 foot span and nothing holding the stones together other than gravity and friction. He mentioned Sunny Wieler of Ireland, who builds intricate stone sculptures. We will never look at a stone wall the same way again.

Hopefully, Torben will return to Princeton to conduct a workshop, much like the ones The Stone Trust leads in Vermont.

After Torben headed back to his stone walling job elsewhere in NJ, I was still curious about the woman in Canada who came across the Town Topics article and is responsible for pointing Torben in our direction. Andrea Cross wrote a nice email back from her well-connected island in Lake Ontario:
"Great to hear from you!
I came across the article during the course of my daily business research which is focused on cultural heritage projects around the world. It was an active google search not an alert. 
You are right the story about the connections is pretty amazing.
Here I am living and working from an island in Lake Ontario and I come across your project. What moved me to take a second look was the lovely photograph with the dry stone structure in the foreground that was crying out to me to be restored!

I was professionally interested in your group’s efforts to create an interpretive or visitor center. However the stones spoke to me and it was an exciting “aha” moment...I am assuming Torben told you that I am active in the Dry Stone Walling Association of Canada and helping organize many international festivals which is how I met Torben.

The article was especially well written compared with many I come across. I was moved and inspired by the success and drive of your group.
I thought of Torben and the Stone Trust in Vermont - maybe they might take on the project for you.
On a more personal note my father, who recently passed away at the age of 93, had a love of mathematics and would have been excited to hear of the connection.

In his career he worked at the Microwave Physics Lab in Palo Alto when they were developing laser technology and was one of three people from his company sent to launch one of the successful Moon Bounce operations that moved communications forward in a big way. Mathematics being key.
Anyway....All this is to say I am cheering you on !!

I had mentioned to Torben, if I may help in any way let me know." 
Andrea Cross
Amherst Island

Monday, February 3, 2020

Oswald Veblen's Early Days in Iowa

On this day, when Iowa once again exercises its outsized influence on the fate of presidential candidates, here's some research on how Oswald Veblen's childhood in Iowa may have influenced his values and his life. In a career packed with accomplishments, he was driven by multiple passions--for mathematics of course, and the advancement of American academia generally, but also for land and for buildings that could bring people together. Having achieved a position of influence, he used it to help countless others advance their careers, apparently unburdened by the racial and gender prejudices common in his time. He used it also to advance institutions and technology, most notably early steps in the development of computers.

Veblen was born and came of age as the country itself was coming of age, in that 30 year span called the Gilded Age, marked by industrialization and growth at the end of the 19th century. By age 20, neatly coinciding with the dawn of the 20th century and reflecting the urgency of the era, he had already gained two B.A. degrees, and was headed to Chicago for graduate work.

Most biographical writings about Veblen dispense with his early years in a paragraph or two, but a trip back to his beginnings reveals how Iowa exercised an outsized influence on what Veblen would later achieve. His four years at what was then called the State University of Iowa would be particularly influential, but this post will focus on the landscapes and buildings that framed his pre-college years, with music providing a brief meander, like the Iowa River he looked out upon from the windows of his childhood home.

It's good to start with a question or two. What, for instance, drove Veblen, a mathematics professor at Princeton, to insist on "supervising every last detail of construction" of Old Fine Hall, and what drove him to overcome opposition and convince the Institute for Advanced Study to acquire 600 acres that would ultimately become the Institute Woods? The degree of his passion for land and buildings is well expressed by Abraham Flexner: "The prospect of a visit from an architect usually cost Professor Veblen a day's work and a night's sleep ... He is a most excellent person, but the word 'building' or 'farm' has an intoxicating effect upon him."

Here, then, are some seeds from which a life grew.

Iowa, for most people, probably conjures images of a flat or gently rolling land of crowded cornstalks and scattered farmers whose opinions loom large every four years when presidential candidates come a'calling. Less known is another Iowa, of "abundant rock outcroppings," of "deep, narrow valleys containing cool, fast-flowing streams" and "unexpectedly scenic landscapes." Tucked into what's been called the "Switzerland of Iowa", a geologic region known as the Paleozoic Plateau at the extreme northeastern corner of the state (the red area on the map), is a town named Decorah, where Oswald Veblen was born.

By the time Oswald arrived on the scene in 1880, his father Andrew had received a masters degree from Carlton College in Minnesota, and had moved to Decorah to teach physics and english at Luther College. Andrew had married Kirsti Hougen, who had grown up near the Valdres Valley in Norway from which Andrew's parents had immigrated a generation earlier. Oswald, then, was the first child born into a family with deep Norwegian roots, living at the time in the center of Norwegian immigrant culture in America. Decorah is not only the home of Luther College, conceived by Norwegian Lutherans in 1857, but also the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, with the most extensive collection of Norwegian-American artifacts in the world.

Along with the forests, abundant water and beauty that must have attracted Norwegians to that part of Iowa, a few other parallels can be drawn between where Oswald was born and the Princeton Ridge where he lived the last 20 years of his life. Like northeastern Iowa's bluff country, Herrontown Woods escaped the flattening effect of the glaciers, and has rock outcroppings and abundant springs. In their wills, the Veblens left behind some artifacts to be part of a "museum and library" at Veblen House.

When I mentioned Decorah to some friends who live in Iowa City, they made the astonishing claim that The New World Symphony--one of my favorites--was composed there. How could a Czech composer end up in Iowa? On the other hand, how did a Czech composer manage to so aptly capture the spirit of America in a symphony?

What appears to be true, after some digging, is that Antonin Dvorak composed the symphony early in a three year stint in the U.S. beginning in 1892. One year in, on the advice of his secretary, a homesick Dvorak headed not back to Europe for a summer break, but instead traveled with his family to a Bohemian enclave in Iowa. There they spent the summer of 1893 in a town not far from Decorah named Spillville, where Dvorak found a home away from home among many Czech immigrants, and soaked up the sounds and vast spaces of the American midwest. One of the string quartets he composed while there includes the song of the scarlet tanager.

Dvorak's visit to the midwest coincided with a momentous time in American history, during which he could hear the sounds of Native American music, played by Iroquois Indians who lived just outside of town, and then travel to Chicago to witness the latest inventions at the Chicago World's Fair. All of this must have seeped into his composing of the New World Symphony, which he completed while living in Spillville.

This mix of the ancient and the modern must also have seeped into Oswald Veblen, by this time 13 and living in Iowa City just to the south. Oswald's family hadn't stayed long in Decorah. In 1881, when Oswald was one year old, his family moved to Baltimore, where his father received two years' training at Johns Hopkins University before taking a position as professor of mathematics and physics at the University of Iowa. Oswald would live in Iowa City for the next 16 years, gaining seven siblings and two degrees.

Fittingly, given Oswald's future as a visionary who loved buildings and nature, the family home in Iowa City had a view, standing atop Mill Hill--a long hill overlooking the Iowa River--the same hill where later would stand the famed Iowa Writers Workshop. The address of the Veblen home was 707 N. Dubuque St. Though we have yet to track down a photo, it was by all accounts an attractive house, surely substantial to house a family of ten.

Here's a description by Dan Campion, an Iowa City writer who I reached out to after seeing his letter in the U. of Chicago alumni magazine, calling for the preservation of Yerkes Observatory, where I grew up.
"The Veblen house must've been a showplace. The site overlooks a stretch of the Iowa River downstream (south) of a bight and about a third to a half a mile north of the center of campus."
Most of what we know about Oswald's childhood home comes from the newspaper columns of historian Irving Weber. By Weber's description, the house had a career of its own, hosting a progression of owners following the departure of the Veblens from Iowa City in 1906.

Weber writes: 
This had been the lovely La Place Bostwick home, and the tea room was called Wisteria because of the beautiful wisteria flowers, droopy clusters of showy, purple blooms on the front of the house. Interestingly, the house, located at the top of the long Dubuque Street hill, had been known as "The House of Mystery" (1908-1918) when Bostwick lived there and invested $25,000 for construction of the 40-by-60-foot laboratory building in back to artificially produce pearls, using clams. Two thousand clams were dredged from the Iowa River, just below the Coralville Dam, and were implanted with a tiny pellet of clam shell (as an irritant to start the pearl). Iowa River water was constantly pumped over the clams in the laboratory tank, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In four years, Bostwick reaped his first harvest of pearls--round, of good quality, weighing 10 grams. 
The "House of Mystery" has echoes of H.G. Wells' novels published only a decade prior, like The Invisible Man, in which a man secretly manipulates nature in a way no one else had ever imagined.

From 1925-26, while Elizabeth Veblen would have been hosting teas in Princeton and growing wisteria in her garden, Oswald's childhood home in Iowa City was busy being one of several Tea Houses in Iowa City operated by women during the Prohibition era. Soon thereafter the house was displaced by the Sigma Chi fraternity and reportedly moved in 1928 to another location, as yet unknown.

Another building that may have had a big effect on Oswald was the Grammar School, an impressive structure built in 1893 at the northeast corner of Van Buren and Jefferson streets. Such edifices must have loomed large in the predominantly rural landscape of Iowa, and surely made an impression on a young Veblen.

Oswald would likely have been a student there only a year before moving on to the university at the tender age of 14, but the flush of new facilities he experienced just before leaving high school may have influenced his campaigns later in life to secure good facilities for Princeton's math department and the Institute for Advanced Study.

For his college education, Oswald looked no further than the State University of Iowa, where his father Andrew was a professor with a long beard and a reputation for high standards.

Deane Montgomery, a former faculty member at the IAS and close friend of Veblen's, offered a few insights about those Iowa City college days in Veblen's obituary for the American Mathematical Society: "As a student he won a prize in mathematics and another in sharpshooting. During these early years he took a trip by boat down the Iowa and Mississippi rivers and he often spoke of this trip with pleasure."

Additional research that I have yet to write up suggests that loss--of buildings and landscape--may also have made a big impression on Veblen in his early days. There was the ancestral Veblen land in Norway lost two generations earlier, reportedly to unscrupulous lawyers, but Oswald himself appears to have directly witnessed two great losses in his youth. One was the fire that consumed the university library--a much loved structure with many irreplaceable books. Another was the university green, an area of open space on campus that was progressively lost to buildings for lack of foresight by leaders who had failed to acquire more land early on to accommodate the university's future growth. 

Of all these elements--family tradition, the great outdoors and great indoors, precocious achievement, tragic loss and steady gain--Oswald Veblen was made. 

Thanks to the Iowa City Library and the State Historical Society for assistance in this research.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Vera Rubin--The Courage of Her Curiosity

A friend sent an article from the Atlantic Magazine announcing that a telescope is being renamed in honor of the great astronomer Vera Rubin. That article in turn has led to autobiographies by Ruben and another great astronomer, Margaret Burbidge, both of whose careers intersected with my father's.

Largely government funded, the Vera C. Rubin Observatory is the first national U.S. telescope to be named after a woman. Though the story has no direct connection to Oswald Veblen, it is congruent with his heritage and legacy. In the late 1800s, when women had far fewer options for pursuing higher education, Veblen's parents and grandparents sent all their children to college, daughters and sons alike. One generation attended Carlton College, the next the University of Iowa, which has the distinction of being the first public co-educational university in the U.S..

Oswald would take that familial heritage into his career in Princeton, where he used his position of influence to help the great mathematician Emmy Noether, displaced after the Nazi takeover in Germany find employment in the U.S.. Veblen took the lead in helping find her a position at Bryn Mawr and inviting her to be a Visitor at the IAS. By that time, 1933, Veblen had left Princeton University to become the first faculty member at the Institute for Advanced Study, which was non-discriminatory from its inception. Princeton University, on the other hand, was men-only until 1975. When Vera Rubin expressed an interest in attending Princeton for graduate studies in 1948, the university would not even send her an application. Princeton ultimately came around, giving her an honorary degree in 2005.

Vera Rubin, who was a lifelong advocate for women in science, was herself inspired by a woman astronomer born 110 years earlier than herself, Maria Mitchell. Demonstrating the power of history and legacy, Rubin reportedly chose to attend Vassar College because Mitchell had been a professor of astronomy there 80 years prior.

The story of Vera Rubin has its most direct connection here to my own family's history. The first connection I discovered is geographical. Cerro Pachon, the mountain in northern Chile where the Vera C. Rubin Observatory is nearing completion, is only a half hour from Cerro Tololo, where I spent some free-range halcyon days as a boy, exploring the desert and tossing rocks off the edge of the mountain while my father, W. A. Hiltner, was on extended observing runs.

Another connection is also through my father's career, which intersected to some extent with Vera Rubin's, as in this 1971 photo with my father on the left and Vera Rubin's on the right (courtesy of the AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Dorothy Crawford Collection), and to a much greater extent with the work of astronomer Margaret Burbidge. A NY Times obituary from 2016 states that "Dr. Rubin, along with Margaret Burbidge ..., was a “guiding light” for a generation of female astronomers."

If it's possible to encapsulate major contributions, "Rubin’s work in the 1970s provided convincing evidence that dark matter existed," while Margaret Burbidge and her husband and fellow astronomer Geoff Burbidge, "were best known for their work in the mid-1950s describing how stars synthesize nearly all the chemical elements in the universe, from carbon and iron to lead and uranium."

The Burbidges, originally from England, along with two other great scientists, Fred Hoyle and William Fowler, stirred things up in the astronomy world with their progressive thinking. Their names were very familiar in our household, growing up.

In reading the interviews and autobiographies of Vera Rubin and Margaret Burbidge, I was gratified to discover the role my father played in Margaret's career early on. This was at a time when many institutions of higher education considered astronomy a men-only profession. Margaret's application in 1945 for a Carnegie Fellowship in Pasadena was rejected due to her being a woman, and in 1948 Vera Rubin, as mentioned, was not even allowed to apply for graduate studies at Princeton University. The largest telescope, at Mt. Palomar, would be unavailable for women until Rubin broke through that barrier in the mid-60s, famously taping the figure of a skirt on the bathroom door to create a women's bathroom.

There were no such restrictions at the University of Chicago's department of astronomy, and its two renowned observatories in Wisconsin and Texas. My father was on the faculty at U. of Chicago, based at Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin. In 1951, he was able to arrange funding for Margaret to take a position there, and later came up with a way for her to get coveted observing time on the 82" telescope at McDonald's Observatory in Texas. From her autobiographical essay:
Before the cold Yerkes winter set in, Geoff and I prepared a program to submit for McDonald observing time ... But the time for submission was past; since we wanted winter time when the December Milky Way was up, we were too late. Here the never-to-be-forgotten kindness of Al Hiltner came to our rescue. He had set me to work on prevention of internal reflections and scattered light in a spectrometer for calibrating coude plates at McDonald, and he had a month (I believe) scheduled for photometry at McDonald. He said there would be many nonphotometric nights during this period, and if Geoff and I could get ourselves to McDonald ... we could have the non-photometric nights for spectroscopy ...
Gratifying, too, was reading Burbidge's and Rubin's descriptions of their burgeoning curiosity as children. It brought back memories of growing up among astronomers who loved their work, in a family where curiosity and creativity were valued. Science for me has always been about beauty and exploring the magnificence of creation. 

 Vera Rubin describes her curiosity about the world and her active imagination:
As a youngster, more questions followed. Why did the pictures on my bedroom wall jump back and forth on each side of my finger as I lay in bed blinking my eyes? How did water drops in a stream know on which side of a rock to pass? Could I, a lazy child, devise a street on which one sidewalk went uphill and one side downhill, so that I could always walk downhill? A little later, the questions were more conventional. How many license plates can be made with three numbers and two letters? This puzzle I solved as we drove to our new home in Washington, D.C.
At age 4, before beginning school, my first view of the beauty of stars in the summer sky during a night-time boat crossing from England to France was the earliest step toward a lifetime love of astronomy. Then I developed an early interest in arithmetic and in numbers (especially large ones with many powers of ten to write out and contemplate); this began in my first years in school. I had learnt to read before going to school, so books were a continuing delight. My parents gave me books written for children on all the natural sciences, and reading these was coupled with both my mother's and father's willingness to show me and tell me about the wonders of the seashore, of flowers, plants, and trees (both my sister and I became passionate tree climbers throughout Hampstead Heath, near which we lived). My love of flowers is lifelong, and has been inherited by my own daughter.
And later in her youth:
When I was 12 or 13 years old, my grandfather gave me Sir James Jeans' popular books on astronomy. Suddenly, I saw my fascination with the stars, born at age 4, linked to my other delight, large numbers. That the nearest star is 26,000,000,000,000 miles away revived those excitements of my first school years (although falling short of my then favorite contemplation, 1 followed by 36 zeros). I decided then and there that the occupation I most wanted to engage in "when I was grown up" was to determine the distances of the stars. My mother recalled telling me, as I lay on my stomach on the floor reading the wonders described by Jeans, that it was bedtime, and that I pleaded for a little more time: "Mum, it's so exciting!" 
Combined with the intellectual and emotional delight--and resonating with Veblen's hiking and woodchopping ways--was the pleasure Margaret found in the physicality of exploration, whether climbing trees as a kid or spending nights in the dome of an observatory with the heavens above. My father came to astronomy after growing up on a farm, and brought that appetite for physical work and resilience against the elements with him, donning insulated underwear for long nights in the Wisconsin winter, where the best nights for observing were also the coldest.

Margaret put it this way:
I often think about the joys of work in an open dome, under the stars, next to the telescope, joys denied to most younger astronomers and students who must sit in a warm console room, facing a television guiding screen and many complex computer interfaces, well removed from the telescope itself. 
Smuggling that avid curiosity and sense of wonder into adulthood not only enriched their lives. It likely helped Vera Rubin and Margaret Burbidge break through (or find ways around) the barriers they encountered as women in a profession dominated by men. One sentence in Vera Rubin's autobiography stood out. In 1960, Rubin had just arrived in the Netherlands for an International Summer Course in Science. There she heard lectures from some of the world's greatest astronomers--Jan Oort and the Burbidges among them. "Initially," she wrote, "Oort terrified me, but I soon had too many questions to stay silent."

Thus the title of this post: The Courage of Her Curiosity. In the 21st century, when so many people hold convictions, sure they are right when surely they are wrong, we would do well to turn to curiosity as a better source of courage.

(Vera Rubin posing with Kitt Peak Observatory in the background--an institution my father played an important role in developing, and where a telescope bears his name. It was at Kitt Peak in 1968 that Vera Rubin and Kent Ford made discoveries that would transform our understanding of the universe. Thanks to AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives for these photos.)

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Shambaugh -- Some Improbable Veblen Connections

This week, the local public library is hosting a workshop in which "participants will write a letter of appreciation and praise to a deserving person in their life." Maybe there's something in the air, with the close of the second decade of the 21st Century, because I had just sent off a couple letters expressing gratitude for professors who had inspired me long ago, in another place and another century.

One was a music professor whose courses on 18th Century counterpoint helped me develop as a composer. His name was Elwood Derr, and using the same simple research approach that has brought to light so much information about the Veblens and the Whiton-Stuarts, I quickly found out that he had passed away, that he had once studied with Carl Orff of Carmina Burana fame, and that his wife might still be alive.

I also noticed that Professor Derr's middle name was Shambaugh. Out of curiosity, knowing from research on Jesse Paulmier Whiton-Stuart just how meaningful a name can be, I decided to search for significant Shambaughs that might be related. Two popped up in an internet search. Remarkably, both were contemporaries of Oswald Veblen and both heralded from his home state of Iowa. What are the chances of that? One was Benjamin Franklin Shambaugh--a very important sounding name.

Benjamin Franklin Shambaugh

A search for a Veblen-Shambaugh connection brought up a list of faculty from 1900 at the University of Iowa. The screenshot shows Veblen's father and Benjamin Shambaugh one after the other on the list. Friends of mine who went to U of Iowa remember attending lectures in Shambaugh Hall. Like Veblen at Princeton, Shambaugh at U of I had a profound impact on the development of the university. Shambaugh not only built the political science department but also established the State Historical Society of Iowa and promoted the study of local history. A description of Ben Shambaugh and his wife--"The couple had no children, but their home was always a social center for Shambaugh's students and colleagues."--could also be said of the Veblens. Whether Benjamin Shambaugh and my music professor Elwood Shambaugh Derr, Jr. are related has yet to be determined, but the coincidence of names is uncanny.

More reading that sprung from the Shambaugh-Veblen connection shows just how extraordinary was that turn-of-the-century era in which Oswald Veblen came of age. Something was in the air--something like the promise of a nation on the rise. The university website gave emphasis to the list of faculty from 1900 because it represented the dawning of a new era--an era that through the efforts of Veblen and many others would raise America to a position of leadership in academics around the world. When Oswald Veblen graduated from the U. of Iowa in 1898, there were no departments, no majors, no College of Liberal Arts. Students seeking advanced training had customarily headed to Europe, for lack of adequate academic institutions in the U.S.. All that would change as the century turned, in Iowa through the work of an innovative university president, George Maclean, just as Woodrow Wilson would lead Princeton into a new era beginning in 1902. (By coincidence, another Maclean, John Maclean, Jr., Princeton University's 10th president, was "one of the chief architects of New Jersey's public education system.")

Jessie Field Shambaugh

Another remarkable Shambaugh from Iowa, born a year after Oswald, in 1881, was Jessie Field Shambaugh, who in 1910 developed the clover logo for what would become known as the 4-H Club. She chose the clover leaf because clover is so good for the soil. Each leaf had an H, representing Head, Hand, Heart, and Home. Though Veblen likely wasn't involved in 4-H, his love of intellect, physical work, people, and buildings is the embodiment of those four words.

Jessie acquired the Shambaugh name from her husband, Ira William Shambaugh. Whether he is related to my former music professor is unknown, but in any case, gratitude has multiplied, as a former composition teacher introduced me not only to musical counterpoint but an unlikely Veblen connection as well.