Web Exclusives: PAWPLUS

Posted April 10, 2002:
Beautiful opinions about Mind:

Happenstance and Old Nassau's saga

By Brad Bradford ’44

"Princeton in the Nation’s Service" comes brilliantly into focus on pages 51 to 55 of Sylvia Nasar’s John Nash biography, A Beautiful Mind — genesis of the Oscar-winning movie.

She not only put to right a long-held misconception of mine but also dragged me back six decades to Fine Hall and a puzzling sophomore physics class. Nasar emphasizes the role of happenstance in this historic Princeton drama, beginning with Princeton President Woodrow Wilson’s "friendly gesture." Wilson overrides his distaste for things scientific to heed mathematician Henry Fine’s request that he hire "a few scientists." His best friend then recruits a number of top-notch scientists to teach graduate students and ignores undergraduate complaints about "brilliant but unintelligible lecturers with foreign accents." Erection of Fine Hall in 1921 gives Princeton what was then described as "the most luxurious building ever devoted to mathematics," with carved paneling studies for senior professors, lavatory reading lights, and a locker room with showers for those who might want a game of tennis on the courts next door.

Fine’s nucleus of researchers might have scattered after his 1928 death in a cycling accident on Nassau Street, but for the Rockefeller Foundation, which had been financing American graduate studies in Europe. The foundation decides that "instead of sending Mohamet to the Mountain, it would fetch the Mountain here." So it finances extravagant scholarships at Princeton and two other American universities to import research professors from the Europe’s scientific capitals.

Finally, the Newark department store Bamberger siblings sell their stock market holdings just before the ‘29 crash and search for a way to express their gratitude to the state of New Jersey. A physician friend, Dr. Abraham Flexner, convinces them to drop their idea of a dental school and use their $25 million to found a first-rate mathematical research institution with no teachers, students, or classes.
In its beginning, the resulting Institute for Advanced Study shares those deluxe Fine Hall quarters with the university’s scientists. That creates a bond which continues long after it moves in 1939 to its Fuld Hall. That bond makes it easier for the university to attract the most brilliant students and faculty even as its active mathematics department serves as a magnet for those visiting or working permanently at the Institute.

o What if Henry Fine had not been Wilson’s best friend?
o What if the University had not financed Fine Hall?
o What if the Rockefeller Foundation had continued sending students to Europe?
o What if the Bambergers had founded a dental school?
The consequences for Princeton would have been huge in each case, but what about this nation — and the world?
Would we have won the atomic bomb race without the grouping of those many Nobel scientists in Princeton?

Back to my personal recollections.

First, my misconception, I had long prided myself in knowing that the Institute for Advanced Study had no official connection with our university. As far as I was concerned, it was happenstance that it was located in the same small town.

Until reading A BEAUTIFUL MIND I had no idea of the very close relationship between the Institute and the University. Nasar describes perhaps the best example of this as follows:
"Tea was the high point of every day. It was held in Fine Hall between three and four ... More often than not, a few visitors, often from the Institute for Advanced Study, would turn up as well." And now back to the spring of 1942 near the end of a Physics 201 class in Fine Hall. The lecturer introduced Henry deWolf Smyth "who has a few words for you."

Dr. Smyth announced that any of us who wished to avoid being drafted into the military had only to major in physics or math. It wasn’t until his official history of the atomic bomb came out after the war that I realized what a great man had addressed us and why he had said what he did. A cursory check just now through my Class of 1944 publications indicates that 10 classmates majored in physics and two in math. Out of that dozen, two sons of Army colonels and three others served in the military.