The Princeton Mathematics Community in the 1930s:
An Oral History Project
and supporting online 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 mathphysics 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 mathphysics 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
online version of:
The
Princeton Mathematics Community of the 1930s: An Oral History Project [archived
project only,
archived project name index, extended website intro,
extended
website, bob's local copy]
The extended website posts numerous documents and articles
detailing the history of the
Princeton Mathematics Department and its personalities in the first
half of the twentieth century.
