February 22, 2017

Institute’s Oswald Veblen Figures In Back Story To Oscar-Nominated Film “Hidden Figures”

To the Editor:

There’s an interesting Princeton back story to the movie Hidden Figures, which has been showing at the Garden Theater and is nominated for three Academy Awards. The back story centers around the movie’s main character, Katherine G. Johnson — one of three extraordinary black women mathematicians depicted in the film. Despite racial prejudice at NASA, respect for Johnson’s mathematical mind grew to the point that John Glenn refused to climb in the rocket until Johnson had verified the math behind the flight’s trajectory.

On a hunch, I traced the mathematical lineage of Katherine Johnson, and found that the string of mentors and advisors leads four generations back to Oswald Veblen, the great mathematician and visionary who played quiet but decisive roles in building Princeton’s math department of the 1930s, and bringing the Institute for Advanced Studies and luminaries like Einstein and Von Neumann to Princeton.

Another connection to the movie shows Veblen’s vision and courage, not only in helping Jewish scientists escape Nazi Germany, but in his early efforts to bring black scholars to Princeton. Johnson’s college professor, William Claytor, was the third African American to receive a PhD in mathematics, but had been forced to take a position that allowed no time for research. Veblen, aware of Claytor’s limited opportunities to exercise his brilliance, sought to bring him to Princeton University, but the University did not accept “coloured persons.” Four years later, Veblen offered Claytor a position at the IAS, which was not subject to the University’s exclusions based on race. But by that time, Claytor had apparently grown disillusioned, and turned down the offer.

Hidden Figures also tells the story of Dorothy Vaughan, who in the movie teaches herself Fortran and figures out how to run a new computer that was otherwise baffling staff at NASA. It was women “computers” who figured out how to actually operate and program the early computers men built. A similar story was told locally this past week, when two local computer societies collaborated to host a talk on the ENIAC, a World War II-era creation that “was the testbed on which the human race learned how to build and program computers.” Though not mentioned in the talk, it was the visionary Veblen who gave the go-ahead to fund construction of the ENIAC in Philadelphia.

The reason I happened to research these Princeton connections is that Veblen also championed another poorly treated entity whose contributions have long been downplayed — nature. Veblen essentially founded Princeton’s movement to preserve open space. He worked to acquire 610 acres that became the Institute Woods, and in 1957 the Veblens donated the land for Princeton’s first dedicated nature preserve, Herrontown Woods.

As president of the Friends of Herrontown Woods, I have the good fortune not only to research Veblen’s remarkable legacy, but also to lead efforts to restore Herrontown Woods and the house and cottage the Veblens donated along with the land. Recently, we submitted to Mercer County an official proposal to rehabilitate these long boarded up historic structures. The Veblens, and the public, deserve an honest effort to repurpose these structures for the benefit of all.

Stephen Hiltner

North Harrison Street