March 20, 2013

George Dyson Recalls Institute Woods, His Boyhood, Oswald Veblen’s Legacy

PRINCETON’S WOODCHOPPING PROFESSOR: Oswald Veblen and his legacy is the subject of a talk by George Dyson tomorrow evening, Thursday, March 21 from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. following a short light reception at the D&R Greenway. For more information, call (609)924-4646, email, or visit: 	(Photo from “Images of America: Institute for Advanced Study” by Linda Arntzenius, Arcadia, 2011)As a boy growing up in Princeton, George Dyson spent as much time as he could out-of-doors in the Institute Woods. Now resident on the West Coast, Mr. Dyson, son of renowned Institute for Advanced Study theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson and mathematician Verena Huber-Dyson, returns to Princeton to pay tribute to the “woodchopping professor” who brought Institute and woods together.

Tomorrow evening Mr. Dyson will present “Princeton’s Christopher Robin: Oswald Veblen and the Six-hundred-acre Woods” at the D&R Greenway. The reference is of course to A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. But in this case the woods are the Institute Woods. “As a child growing up at the Institute, I spent half my time there,” recalls Mr. Dyson. “I just assumed the woods had always been there, and always would be. Much later, when I became a historian, I started to wonder, how, and why, did the Institute acquire all that land?”

As Mr. Dyson discovered, the answer was Oswald Veblen, one time Henry B. Fine Mathematics Professor at Princeton University. In fact, says Mr. Dyson “Oswald Veblen is really the answer to why the Institute for Advanced Study ended up in Princeton in the first place.”

Oswald Veblen (1880-1960) was born in Iowa, the son of a professor of mathematics and physics. He studied math at Harvard and Chicago before joining the faculty of Princeton University in 1905. His uncle, the economist Thorstein Veblen authored the influential book, The Higher Learning in America. Mr. Veblen’s own efforts to advance high-level research in mathematics earned him title “statesman of mathematics.” It was Mr. Veblen who suggested Princeton as the place to establish the Institute for Advanced Study and he was among its first faculty members, resigning his professorship at the University in order to do so.

“He was a woodsman as well as a mathematician, and believed that people needed room to think,” said Mr. Dyson. In 1957, Mr. Veblen and his wife Elizabeth Veblen donated their Herrontown Wood property to Mercer County as a wildlife and plant sanctuary.

A historian of science and technology whose works include Darwin Among the Machines; Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship; Baidarka the Kayak; and, most recently, Turing’s Cathedral; Mr. Dyson is uniquely placed to recount the story of the Institute Woods preservation. He was a Director’s Visitor at the Institute in 2002-03 and his impressions span significant decades in the areas of science and preservation.

“The Institute Woods preservation put D&R Greenway on the map,” says Linda Mead, recalling the Land Trust’s first multi-million-dollar transaction in the 1990s. Preservation successes since then have led to national recognition for the organization.

Mr. Dyson’s talk promises to reveal the unlikely and dramatic events from the history of the Institute: of boundaries and bargains; lifelong relationships among scientists who altered global reality with their discoveries; of quirks and foibles and seminal and ultimately triumphal land negotiations.

Having moved as a young man to a tree house in British Columbia, “because Princeton wasn’t wild enough,” much of George Dyson’s early work involved designing and restoring traditional kayaks and re-experiencing historic voyages in them. In an article published in The Atlantic in 2010, Kenneth Brower described Mr. Dyson as “bearing an uncanny resemblance to Thoreau.”

Mr. Dyson’s talk will be the first of an annual series of presentations titled “Forum on Strategic Techniques and Innovations in Land Preservation and Stewardship,” in honor of D&R Greenway trustee John Rassweiler, through the Rassweiler Family:

The event takes place at the D&R Greenway Land Trust, One Preservation Place, off Rosedale Road, on Thursday March 21, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Light refreshments will precede the program, which is co-sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Study. The event is free but registration is required; call (609) 924-4646 or email For more information, visit:

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