Adventures in Fine Hall

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, 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.

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10 Responses to Adventures in Fine Hall

  1. Rex Groves says:

    It was always my suspicion in graduate school that George Gamow, Hans Bethe and Eugene Wigner were “second tier”:)) Wow! I can’t imagine having those kinds of accomplishments and not being considered enough.

  2. liuyao says:

    Did Weyl write about Siegel in a separate memo? I was just reading by chance the MathOverflow question

  3. Kea says:

    I imagine the IAS was a very peaceful place to work in those days, since it was still quiet and pleasant when I was there in the 1990s. Was it much smaller?

  4. Peter Woit says:

    It looks to me as if they were planning on offering a position to Siegel, that this list was a “comparison” list, the kind of thing hiring committees put together to justify why the person they have agreed on is the best available.

    Yes, I think in the 3os and 4os the IAS was a much smaller place, even more peaceful than now.

  5. Reading that memo, Pauli is used as a comparison benchmark but is apparently out of consideration. Bohr is listed, despite being described as unobtainable. So, had they already asked Pauli and he’d declined? Anyone know the story there?

  6. Peter Woit says:

    Douglas Natelson,
    I think Pauli was already at the IAS at this time (he was there 1940-6).

  7. Ahh. That’d do it. I didn’t remember he’d been there despite reading the recent biography, and I was too lazy to check. Thanks.

  8. Weyl’s memo is an eye-popping document—possibly the most distinguished group of people in the history of the world, ever to have been straightforwardly ranked and evaluated as potential hires.

  9. David Derbes says:

    My friend Bob Jantzen, a relativist at Villanova, spent untold hours turning the typed pages of the Oral History of Mathematics at Princeton in the 1930’s into HTML. He did this for free, having been a graduate student of Abe Taub’s at Berkeley. If you bump into him at a GR conference, and you like the web site (and how can you not??), you should buy him a glass of a good Italian wine.

  10. As an undergraduate at Princeton in physics (thanks, David!) who took a lot of extra math, I never knew any of this interesting history. Ironically today’s math dept at Princeton seems to have no interest in why it became a powerhouse of American mathematics, you will find no link to its history or this website on the department website. Not even the university itself could find a place in its archives to retain the website it held for more than a decade surrounding the original oral history project, a website that I created to give context to that project, through many articles which filled in the details before and after the project. It is filed in web archives so that I cannot update it I am guessing, since I have still not made contact with the chief archivist Dan Linke who has always been very cooperative and who apparently saved the website from oblivion when a reorganization of the university archives orphaned it. He must have posted it in these web archives. Perhaps someone can explain how that site works? I was originally motivated by the fact that only a few paper copies of this oral history project existed unknown to most of the academic community, and the time at Y2K was ripe to transfer it to the internet, which I did as a public service. I emailed the author of the recent PAW article but got no response. I will try again.

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