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.

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