January 30, 2002: From the Editor

The opening of A Beautiful Mind this month focused national attention on a most unusual place: Princeton’s mathematics department. Long before Hollywood discovered it, however, the department was making history. In 1958 — eight years after John Nash earned his Ph.D. — PAW, under the direction of the inimitable John Davies ’41, ran an extensive article on the assembly of mathematical scholars at Princeton and their scientific contributions. Wrote Davies: “Most Princetonians have hastened by Fine Hall as if it were a graveyard, not pausing to look in on the chill, abstract world of higher mathematics.”

The Fine Hall to which Davies referred was not the Washington Road tower familiar to recent graduates. Originally, mathematics was housed in what today is known as Jones Hall, home to Near Eastern and East Asian studies and connected to Palmer Physics Lab (now Frist Campus Center).

The first Fine — which bears its original name on its cornerstone — honored Dean Henry Fine 1880, who chaired Princeton’s department for 24 years. Said noted professor Oswald Veblen of Fine, “He carried American mathematics forward from a state of approximate nullity to one verging on parity with the European nations.”

Shortly after Fine’s death at age 70 in a 1928 bicycle accident, his friend Thomas Jones 1876 offered to endow a hall of mathematics as a memorial. “Nothing is too good for Harry Fine,” Jones said, and the building bore out his words. Fine Hall was adorned with oak paneling, luxurious offices, a world-class library, and a locker room complete with showers so that professors could clean up after a quick game of tennis without going home. (This led to a Faculty Song verse describing Fine as “a country club for math, where you can even take a bath.”) In the well-appointed Common Room — where mathematicians and physicists met daily for tea and conversation, a tradition that endures today — the leaded glass windows bore mathematical formulas. And according to the PAW article, placed inside Fine’s cornerstone was a lead box containing works by Princeton mathematicians along with the “venerable tools of the trade: two pencils, one piece of chalk, and an eraser.”

The department moved to the new, larger Fine Hall in 1969. But the mathematicians left behind their formulas — still visible inside Jones 202, which was used in filming the movie — and their cornerstone of treasures, hearkening back to a day when, as Veblen said in dedicating the first Fine Hall, “a pencil sharpener was about all the apparatus that a mathematician required.” That, and, we presume, a good-looking mind.


For more on math and Fine Hall go directly to PAW PLUS at www.princeton.edu/paw/plus


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