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The Princeton Mathematics Community in the 1930s: An Oral History Project

and supporting on-line documents and links


The 1930s saw the flowering of a unique mathematical community at Princeton University with the construction of a luxurious new building Fine Hall (now Jones Hall) dedicated to the mathematician and Dean Harry Fine and designed to facilitate a real community of mathematicians engaged in research and closely linked with mathematical physicists in the attached Palmer physics laboratory to which it was connected and shared a joint math-physics library. This community was unlike any other in America before that time and perhaps afterwards, and had important consequences for American mathematics. With the planning and founding of the Institute for Advanced Study at the beginning of the decade, originally having only a mathematics department, which then shared Fine Hall with the university mathematics department as a single institute during the period 1933 to 1939, starting with three of the university's leading mathematicians joined by Einstein and Gödel and attracting many visitors, a very exciting environment developed which many students and faculty were loath to leave.

Half century later in 1984, one of the original participants Albert Tucker, himself a former mathematics department chair at Princeton, was motivated by Princetonian historian of science Charles Gillispie to capture some of the personal reminiscences of the remaining survivors of the period on tape himself with the help of William Aspray, which were then transcribed and organized into a body of written transcripts by then graduate student Rik Nebeker. Unfortunately this document existed only in a few copies not very accessible to the public.

In 1999, Robert Jantzen, a former Princeton undergraduate and Ph.D. advisee of one of the original participants of that decade, Abraham H. Taub, stumbled upon this story leading up to and surrounding this decade by chance while using the new Fine Hall math-physics library to get background information on a peripheral story involving another famous Princeton mathematician and Dean of that period, Luther P. Eisenhart, and his connection with the application in relativistic cosmology by Gödel and Taub of the work of the Italian mathematician Luigi Bianchi. It seemed obvious that the world wide web was the natural way to make the Oral History Project available to the whole world, together with supporting documents telling the story surrounding it, so Jantzen, also encouraged by Gillispie, volunteered to make this happen. The result is the web enhanced on-line version of:

The Princeton Mathematics Community of the 1930s: An Oral History Project