Saturday, June 19, 2021

On Juneteenth, A Post From the Past

Just two days ago, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. The title suggests that we can all feel more free because of Juneteenth. Though it primarily commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans, it's also been described as serving "as a moment to honor and celebrate black excellence." I can relate to that, as a jazz musician, having spent long and pleasurable hours listening to and transcribing the solos of many of the greats: Lester Young, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Don Byas, Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray, Sonny Rollins. 

Now, immersed in the history and the restorational logistics of Veblen House, what connection can be found between African American excellence and the Veblens, whose ancestry is Norwegian and English? 

The question sends us back to the archives for a 2017 post entitled "Math Writ Large in Hidden Figures." It's a story of surprising connections that begins like this: 

"A friend likes to say that "all roads lead to Veblen House". On a hunch, I traced the mathematical road leading back from Katherine G. Johnson, one of three extraordinary black women mathematicians in the movie Hidden Figures, and sure enough, it led back in multiple ways to Oswald Veblen."

The rest of the story is at this link. 

Friday, June 11, 2021

What Einstein, Veblen, and Cicadas Have in Common

In this collage of Princeton Alumni magazines, Oswald Veblen finds himself framed by two miraculous companions: Albert Einstein and the Miracicada that currently has Princeton all abuzz. What do they have in common other than being miraculous? They have both spent time at Herrontown Woods. Veblen and Einstein were the first two professors at the Institute for Advanced Study, and remained good friends. The Miracicadas were singing in 1936 when Veblen bought what we now call the Veblen Cottage--an 1875 farmstead that became Veblen's study, often visited by Einstein and other friends. That purchase, which later became the core of Herrontown Woods, can be considered a starting point for the Princeton open space movement. By that measure, the movement to preserve open space reached five cicada generations old this year. Though the cicadas only come out of the ground once every 17 years, Veblen may have considered them friends as well, and as a mathematician surely took an interest in the primeness of their periodicity.

Update: In a letter to the Princeton Alumni Magazine about this, I noted that the author of the PAW's article on cicadas, Elyse Graham, was also the author of the PAW's past articles about Veblen, Adventures in Fine Hall and The Power of Small Numbers.