Thursday, February 2, 2023

Historical Research Can Uncover Uncanny Coincidence

There are some aspects of my role in adopting Veblen House as a longterm project that border on the uncanny. Coincidence has accumulated as I've researched the people who lived in the house. The Veblen House itself, I realized at some point, has much in common with the house I grew up in. 

That house, next to Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin, is now also named after a renowned scientist, the astronomer Otto Struve, and is similar in color to what the Veblen House was, and is at the end of a drive, surrounded by woods, 

Also echoing the Veblen House, it's even approached along a slightly curving walkway, down and to the left as one pulls into the driveway. 

Oswald Veblen came to Princeton after growing up in the midwest, as did I, and after having lived in a progression of university towns, as did I. His grandparents emigrated from Norway to Wisconsin, where I spent my childhood. His father's father built houses and barns, as did mine. His father was a physicist, mine an astrophysicist. Veblen got his PhD at the University of Chicago, where my father would later spend most of his career. It's likely that Veblen as a boy of 13 saw the 40 inch refracting telescope my father used--the world's largest refracting telescope--on exhibit at the 1893 world's fair in Chicago. I almost went to Carlton College, where Veblen's father and all of his aunts and uncles got degrees. I spent my childhood roaming the expansive grounds of Yerkes Observatory, where brilliant scientists lived on the outskirts of a small town with school colors orange and black, not unlike the circumstances of the Institute for Advanced Study, which Veblen helped to found on the outskirts of Princeton. 

As if these coincidences aren't enough, there's also the first owners of what would later be called the Veblen House, Jesse and Mary Whiton-Stuart, who lived their last years in towns I have familial connections to--San Luis-Obispo, CA and Tucson, AZ, the latter being where we'd go as part of my father's work at nearby Kitt Peak Observatory.

And then there's the uncanny coincidence that came to light when I began researching the origins of the house in Ann Arbor where I lived for many years. It was built and lived in by Walter Colby, a nuclear physicist who in many ways played the same role at U. of Michigan that Veblen played in Princeton, bringing brilliant scholars from Europe to raise the level of science and math in the U.S. They had parallel lives, born in the same year, retiring the same year, their legacies largely forgotten and in need of rediscovery. Neither had children, and both played important military roles in World Wars I and II. Both were married to women who also led singular lives, and tended to beautiful gardens.