VU Talk October 24, 2002

Philadelphia Area Seminar on the History of Mathematics (PASHoM)

The Princeton Mathematics Community in the 1930s: An Oral History Project [the on-line version PMC2000]

by bob jantzen, Dept of Mathematical Sciences, Villanova University

How did I get involved?

My connection to the PMC revolves around my own experience as a PU physics(/math) undergrad and my status as the last (only relativity) PhD student of the physicist/relativist/computer science bureacrat:

Abraham Taub [Entry in the Mathematics Genealogy Project]

His death in 1999 moved me to explore his connections with Princeton where I stumbled onto the paper PMC and gradually learned the larger story surrounding it. One of my visits to the Fine-Jadwin math-physics library at Princeton began this awakening chapter whose roots go back to the early 1970s when I was a math oriented physics major there who got caught up in the relativity excitement of the period. John Archibald Wheeler [recent Einstein prize with Peter Bergman, Wolf prize alone] was responsible for this, and his collaborator Remo Ruffini more directly with my career choice, which in turn drew its origins from the Italian geometer Luigi Bianchi, which in turn awakened my interest in history in 1999 when I needed background for my translation from Italian of his famous classification of 3-dimensional Riemannian manifolds that would appear in the relativity journal General Relativity and Gravitation finally in December 2001. [Tangent on Gődel's obsession with rotating universes.]

Meeting Charles Gillispie was the next step towards Al Tucker's (thesis advisor of John Nash) PMC on-line project. [Details of the on-line project story.]

Surprising lack of interest by mathematicians in their institutional history

However, one of the motivations for me taking action as a nonhistorian-of-science scientist was the lack of history that was given to me as an undergraduate in a remarkable place. No one seemed to care then, and no one seems to care now. The Princeton University Math department has little regard for maintaining a record of its own illustrious history, and I had to plead with them just to put a link to the PMC project on their home page once it was completed.

John Milnor, a former PU math star now retired, even with an additional email from Howard Kuhn (PU *50 in math, student of Tucker and mentioned in the PMC several times, and responsible for pushing the Nobel in Economics to Nash in 1994), whom I met at Haverford at a Silvia Nasar talk, would not reply to my emails and letters about when he was chairperson of the PU Math department or if he would give permission for for me to post his nostalgic article about PU in the 1950s on the PMC site. I certainly did not do this to get thanks, but was not expecting a total lack of cooperation from so many associated with the story, or an apparent lack of interest from the world itself despite my best efforts to publicize its availability.

Even I was guilty of not being more interested in what Abe Taub could have told me about this history while I was a graduate student and even later during social visits in his retirement.

What did I learn about it as an undergraduate there? [almost nothing]

So as an undergraduate interested in relativity and groups of isometries, I photocopied ("xeroxed") two books by Luther Eisenhart, whom I vaguely knew had been a PU math professor, but not much more. I learned a lot about Lie groups from one of those books. And I was pretty familiar with the Fine Hall annex math-physics library, but never really knew why the new math tower was called Fine Hall or why it was connected to the new physics Jadwin Hall, or that the old Palmer Physics Lab (now the PU Frisk student center) had anything to do with this connection. That there had been a former Fine Hall connected to the Palmer Lab never came up.

What could I have learned? [a lot]

If only this article from the Princeton Alumni Weekly had been available, say framed on the Fine Hall library wall to get students' attention to ask to see a copy, I could have learned the whole story in broad outline from the name change and status upgrade from the College of NJ to Princeton University (1985) through the mid 1950s, while the story of the project itself is told in an article from the Princeton Weekly Bulletin.

A series of articles in a 3 volume AMS set A Century of Mathematics in America filled in many details. Some I put on the web, and I should put a few more of those on-line now that I see that no other input is coming from the outside world. Then I can walk away. At least other undergraduates at Princeton who are curious about the PMC link on the PU Math Department home page will have a source of the history preceding them at least through the first half of the last century. It would be a real shame if no one fills in the second half...