Every so often I get a copy of Princeton’s alumni publication in the mail, which I mostly ignore. The latest one however had an entertaining article about the Princeton mathematics department during the 1930s, entitled Adventures in Fine Hall. Various physicists (often misidentified as mathematicians) also make an appearance.
The article is based on an oral history project from the 1980s (Princeton Library website here, archive.org site here). It includes many stories I’d never heard before, including one about Hermann Weyl:
When attendance at his lectures shrank to three, Weyl threatened to end the course if it shrank further. One day when the third student got sick, the other two students “went out and got one of the janitorial staff to come and sit in the room, so there would be three people in the room and Weyl would give his lecture.”
Not quite the same, but this reminds me a bit of a story a Columbia colleague likes to tell about one of Claude Chevalley’s calculus classes here at Columbia during the 1950s. Supposedly (accuracy of story not guaranteed) students got together to complain to the chair that they couldn’t follow Chevalley’s lectures. After someone was dispatched to attend a lecture, and reported back that it was not surprising the students weren’t following, a deal was made with the students. Someone else would be found to give them lectures in parallel with Chevalley’s, at a different time, as long as they agreed to keep going to Chevalley’s lectures. Things are different now, hard to get students to go to one set of calculus lectures, much less two…
For more Princeton math and physics history, the Institute for Advanced Study has its own oral history project (started by Frank Wilczek’s wife, Betsy Devine), website here. I don’t know if any of those materials are available without going down to Princeton. The IAS has an extensive archive, with a lot of material available online (see for instance here). Poking around I noticed for instance Hermann Weyl’s Faculty file (here, here, here and here) and a memo Weyl prepared in 1945 evaluating various physicists and mathematicians as possible hires.
For those interested in IAS history, the archive describes a history of the years 1930-50 there which was commissioned, but not published since Oppenheimer felt it “portrayed the Institute in a less than flattering light.” A copy of this document is however now available from the IAS here and here.