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.

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