"The Princeton Mathematics Community in the 1930s: An Oral History Project"   Now On-Line

The decade of the 1930s at Princeton has had far reaching consequences for mathematics in America. Important advances in game theory, modern topology, linear programming, mathematical statistics and computing had their origins then in a remarkable community of mathematicians whose influence spread across the continent through their students and successive generations.

John Nash, a Nobel prize winner in economics for his early work in game theory (1994), was a student of Albert Tucker ("prisoner's dilemma"), himself a student of Solomon Lefschetz, a key figure in modern topology (a term coined by Lefschetz). Tucker in turn had been greatly influenced by John von Neumann's early studies of game theory. John Tukey,  "considered to be one of the most important contributors to modern statistics," inventor of the terms "bit" and "software", had also been a student in that era. John von Neumann also had enormous influence on the development of computing, as did Alonzo Church through his abstract lambda-calculus which later became the foundation for the computer language LISP, also making major contributions to recursion theory and mathematical logic. Of the students of Church, John Kemeny was the coinventor of the computer language BASIC and of time-sharing, while Stephen Kleene also contributed to recursion theory and computability and Alan Turing, famous for his "Turing machine" did fundamental work in computability. Von Neumann actually shared a half position with his close Hungarian friend Eugene Wigner, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963. Abe Taub, a student of H.P Robertson who also worked with Veblen and von Neumann and learned his geometry from Eisenhart, carried on the relativity tradition of that era as a physicist with a mathematics degree.

Veblen, Eisenhart, Lefschetz, Weyl, Alexander, von Neumann, Wigner, Robertson, Church, ..., and then two towering figures of twentieth century science, Einstein and Gödel, were among the faculty during this decade when the Institute for Advanced Studies was conceived, founded and housed together for 6 years with the Princeton University Mathematics Department in a new university building built sparing no expense to foster a truly mathematical community in memory of Henry Fine. And their students were the generation which contributed to the oral history project of Al Tucker in 1984 in an attempt to salvage what memories were still left forty-five years later after World War II brought this era to a close.

Encouraged by a fellow Princetonian and historian of science Charles Gillispie, with the help of historian of science William Aspray and then grad student Rik Nebeker, they compiled 45 taped interviews which were then transcribed and indexed, but only a few paper copies were then produced in 1985, available to the public only at the Princeton University Math-Physics Fine Hall Library, the  Charles Babbage Institute (Center for the History of Computing) at the University of Minnesota, and American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.

These were accidentally discovered in 1999 by myself, Villanova University Professor Robert Jantzen, Abe Taub's last graduate student in physics at UC Berkeley (1978), while inquiring about materials that the Princeton University Fine Hall library might have on Taub and Eisenhart, not long before Abe's death that year. Another accidental coincidence through the Fine Hall library staff led to a meeting with Gillispie, at which time I suggested that the Oral History Project should be made available on the web and enhanced with background materials. It was clear that the only way to get this done was to do it myself, so I undertook a long and tedious volunteer project  of scanning and web formatting the project, and finding supporting materials in an amateur effort to provide some context for the project. This came on line in September, 2000 at http://www.princeton.edu/mudd/math at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library of Princeton University.

The interviews reveal the personalities of these famous names, and the atmosphere of the community of mathematicians which existed during that decade. They should be of interest to anyone who is curious about how great minds work, and what kind of people lie behind the work that made them famous.

With my background in physics and relativity, I have little knowledge of the field of the history of mathematics, so I would appreciate help from more knowledgeable professionals in gathering further supporting documents to either include in the site or make reference to.  Any suggestions that might improve the site are also welcomed, and its contents will be updated from time to time. Some of the supporting documents sketch the decade of the fifties, the students from which are now at about the ages that the remaining students from the thirties were in 1984, but sadly there seems to be little interest in continuing this oral history or in archiving materials to record the human relationships that fill in the history of the generations after the war during which one by one the brilliant lights of the original decade were spent.

Robert Jantzen
October, 2000

Department of Mathematical Sciences, Villanova University, Villanova, PA 19085-1699 USA

Written for the Fall 2000 Bulletin of the Canadian Society for the History and Philosophy of Mathematics (November 2000, Number 27), but the last sentence was truncated after the word "generations."