November 7, 2007: From the Editor
In his story about Princeton’s celebrated math department, PAW writer Merrell Noden ’78 describes what the less mathematically inclined among us tend to think about the inhabitants of Fine Hall. “Mathematicians have an image problem, and they know it. To many of us, they seem a bit, well, different — smarter, but also, it often seems, less securely tethered to the real world,” writes Noden, who majored in English.
The mathematicians in his article seem quite securely tethered (though they still seem smarter than the rest of us). The department has been enlivened by interesting characters for decades, most famously in the 1930s. Professor emeritus Albert Tucker *32 and colleagues later conducted interviews with mathematicians who had been students at Princeton in those days. In the interviews and written recollections, the mathematicians recall what it was like to study with math legends like Alonzo Church ’24 *27, Oswald Veblen, and John von Neumann. “His [von Neumann’s] complete control and mastery of his subject and his lightning-fast blackboard equations quickly reflected to us some of the greatness of his precocious mind,” remembered Malcolm Robertson *34. “His audience will remember his beautifully complexioned cheeks that often radiated a precocious smile ... .”
The former students recounted social life in Fine Hall’s common room, with its games of chess, bridge, Go, and Kriegspiel and performances by a student who could “whistle whole symphonies and concertos of Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky.” Robert Greenwood *39 recalled when graduate students got a spoof research article, “A Contribution to the Mathematical Theory of Big-Game Hunting,” published in a math journal; the author: H. Petard. Read the histories at http://www.math.princeton.edu/quicklinks/.
PAW marks Veterans Day with E. B. Boyd ’89’s article and Web profiles on alumni who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two World War II vets with Princeton connections were recognized in Ken Burns’ new documentary, The War. Ward Chamberlin ’43 tells of serving in North Africa and Italy as a volunteer ambulance driver with the American Field Service. Emeritus literature professor Samuel Hynes, a former Marine pilot, eloquently describes his experiences in the Pacific and at home.
Hynes gives a fuller account of his wartime service in his 1988 book Flights of Passage. In another book, The Soldiers’ Tale, he reflects on the war stories told by others. Hynes makes clear that he was not writing about the myths of war — “the rather simplified narrative that evolves from war, through which it is given meaning: a Good War, a Bad War, a Necessary War.” “Myths seem to be socially necessary, as judgments or justifications of the terrible costs of war, but they take their shape at the expense of the particularity and ordinariness of experience, and the inconsistencies and contradictions of human behavior,” he writes in the prologue. “The myth of a war tells what is imaginable and manageable; the soldiers’ tale, in its infinite variety, tells the whole story.”