The year was 1933. Members of the University’s mathematics department and the Institute for Advanced Study were celebrating the Institute’s opening with a party at the Princeton Inn, which is now Forbes College. “By chance,” an attendee later recalled, he entered just behind the Institute’s most famous faculty member, Albert Einstein. “As we walked across the lobby of the hotel, a Princetonian lady, of the Princetonian variety, strolled toward us. She was fairly tall and almost as wide, beautifully dressed, and she had an air of dignity. She strolled up to Einstein, reached out, put her hand up on Einstein’s head, ruffled his hair all over the place, and said, ‘I have always wanted to do that.’ ” 

The source of this marvelous anecdote is Edward McShane, a distinguished mathematician, and the context is an intriguing series of interviews that the University conducted in the 1980s with people who had studied in the mathematics department in the 1930s. These interviews sought to capture the spirit of mathematics at Princeton during a golden age, a time when Einstein, Kurt Gödel, John von Neumann, and other analytical greats crossed paths on campus. In the process, the interviews captured something unexpected: a catalog of weirdness, a palette of colorful and off-kilter adventures that were going on in the background while the big papers were being written.

Then, as now, the anchor of mathematics at Princeton was Fine Hall, which opened in 1931. (Forty years later, the original Fine Hall was renamed after its donor, Thomas Jones 1876, when today’s mathematics building was constructed near Princeton Stadium.) Henry Fine had been a much-beloved dean of the faculty and the University’s first dean of science; after he died, Jones, a member of the Board of Trustees, gave money for a mathematics building in his honor. The building was gorgeous: three stories high, with oak paneling, leaded-glass windows, a central courtyard, and a library. A common room, with leather chairs, tables for chess, and a blackboard tucked away nearby in case of arguments, allowed the department to follow the English practice of gathering every afternoon for tea. Every time a bean counter approached Jones with the growing bill for the building, he said, “Nothing is too good for Harry Fine.”

For a few years after people started arriving, in 1933, to work at the Institute for Advanced Study, Fine Hall was also the home of its School of Mathematics. Even after that group moved to a new building, the mathematicians at the University and IAS were closely affiliated. Nazi hostility toward Jews and other minorities sent immigrants in flight to the United States: Einstein and Hermann Weyl from Germany, Gödel and Oskar Morgenstern from Austria, John von Neumann and Eugene Wigner from Hungary. Paul Erdős came from Hungary and, though he had no official affiliations, made Fine Hall a second home. “Those were the days when refugees were coming out of Europe,” recalled Israel Halperin *36, “and those in mathematics seemed to head first for Princeton, because the Institute and the University’s math department were both there. It was a tremendous concentration of talent.” 

“It started out being a very fearsome and frightening place,” said Joseph F. Daly *39 — but it became friendly “because they had tea every afternoon so you met all these people, people not only from the math department and the Institute for Advanced Study, but also from the physics department.” 

One faculty member who was called upon to orient new students was James Alexander, an avid mountain climber who showed off by climbing the Graduate School tower. Alexander used to leave his office window ajar so that he could climb into it, two stories up, if the building was locked. (There was a persistent rumor that whenever he heard his secretary say to an unwanted visitor, “Oh yes, do come in. I am quite sure Professor Alexander is here,” he’d quietly slip out the window.) An alumnus later recalled of his orientation, “One of the things I remember most clearly was that Alexander’s advice was to tell us how to get into the library in case the building was locked. ... His advice was that we could climb up to the second-story window.” The alum added, “It started us out properly in our careers at Princeton.” 

The first protocol for a student to remember seemed to be: Every professor has different protocols. Weyl reportedly produced papers in agony, “like a woman giving birth to a child”; von Neumann finished them at 3 a.m., after waking from a catnap, and then immediately phoned colleagues to talk shop. When attendance at his lectures shrank to three, Weyl threatened to end the course if it shrank further. One day when the third student got sick, the other two students “went out and got one of the janitorial staff to come and sit in the room, so there would be three people in the room and Weyl would give his lecture.” Then again, when Carl Ludwig Siegel announced that he would hold class on a University holiday, his students left the room empty on the appointed day, hiding nearby to see what he did. “Sure enough, Siegel got up front in the empty room, started in with the beautiful lecture as though he had a full room,” said Merrill Flood *35. After he had continued for a while, “we sheepishly trooped in, and listened to his lecture.” 

Hermann Weyl in 1934.
ullstein bild via Getty Images

The faculty also kept each other on their nimble toes. Solomon Lefschetz had a reputation for “kibitzing” during the lectures of colleagues; at perhaps the first public talk on computing that von Neumann ever gave, von Neumann said, halfway in, “Well, so far so good” — and Lefschetz added, “and so trivial.” (The students passed down an impious faculty song about their elders; the verse for Lefschetz ended, “When he’s at last beneath the sod, he’ll then begin to heckle God.”) John von Neumann had an ongoing competition with Frederic Bohnenblust: “The rule was that if either one could catch the other working, the one who was caught working had to pay $10. The rules were that you could burst into the other’s office at any time, without knocking, in an effort to catch him working. Bohnenblust never caught von Neumann working,” recalled William L. Duren, who worked at the Institute in 1936–37. “Apparently, von Neumann did a lot of his work way into the middle of the night, if indeed he did it at all. He was just thinking about it, so that you couldn’t catch him.” 

Von Neumann was responsible for arranging for the Institute to hire Gödel, whom he heard lecture in Europe and recognized as a rising star. Gödel, who suffered from mental illness, was polite but reserved to the point of paralysis. John Kemeny ’46 *49 recalled a public lecture Gödel gave during the Princeton Bicentennial in 1946; the half-hour lecture sounded good, but Gödel delivered the entire thing while standing with his face to the blackboard, which he didn’t even write on: “It was clear that he just could not face his audience.” Such was Gödel’s reserve that, even after he began working on relativity theory, he couldn’t bring himself to reach out to Einstein, whom he wanted to meet, and whose office was directly across the hall from his own. Finally, Paul Oppenheim strode to the corridor between their two offices, reached out, and knocked on their doors at the same time. “The doors opened, and he said, ‘Einstein, this is Gödel, Gödel, this is Einstein,’” Kemeny said. The two became good friends; and Oppenheim, a philosopher of science rather than a scientist, went around thereafter describing that double knock as “his only contribution to science.”

In time, Gödel chose Einstein and Morgenstern as his sponsors for American citizenship. According to the Institute’s Herman Goldstine, Gödel prepared for citizenship by reading the Constitution and discovered, he thought, a contradiction that needed rectifying, “and von Neumann carefully argued Gödel out of this by some sophistry.” When Gödel appeared with his sponsors before an immigration official, the official asked — referring to the troubles in Europe — “And of course, none of this that we have been talking about could happen in a country like the United States, could it, Professor Gödel?” Gödel said, “Well, you know, I think maybe ... ” Morgenstern elbowed him in the ribs, and he corrected himself: It couldn’t happen here. (“Then they made the proper signs over Gödel’s head, and he became an American citizen.”) 

Mathematician John von Neumann, shown here at the Institute for Advanced Study in 1947, started teaching at Princeton in 1930. Tea was a tradition at both the University and the Institute.
Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Among the graduate students, life was cliquish. They often sat together at dinner in Procter Hall, talking tangents and rolling biscuits to the end of the table. The students were as daunting, in their way, as the faculty above them, and their legends only grew as the ’30s slipped into the ’40s and the department consolidated its position as a world power in mathematics. Alan Turing *38, who made great contributions to code-breaking in World War II, earned his doctorate at Princeton. So did John Bardeen *36, who went on to receive two Nobel Prizes in physics. Kemeny, who became an assistant professor at Princeton, developed the logical systems that he worked on for his thesis into the BASIC computer language. Arthur Stone *41 accidentally invented hexaflexagons while he was playing around with strips that he had cut from foolscap to make it fit his small notebook. (Stone’s fellow mathematicians Richard Feynman *42, Bryant Tuckerman *47, and John Tukey *39 created the Princeton Flexagon Committee to work out further innovations on the concept.) The sons of Erwin Panofsky, a great art historian, placed first and second in the Class of 1938, and the faculty referred to them ever after as Smart Panofsky and Dumb Panofsky.

In this setting, the intellectual pressure was intense. Duren still felt the sting, decades later, of the time he tried to simplify a professor’s argument and made a gaping mistake — a mistake that someone else had already made, which was worse, “because you’re supposed to make original mistakes.” Many students worked quietly, ambitiously, to find a mathematical basis that united quantum theory with relativity — that is, to find a unified field theory, although they never used the term, as it was thought to be Einstein’s turf: “We did not want to be guilty of lese majesty!” And all of this while trying to keep up with the famously rowdy, famously liquid, parties that Alexander and von Neumann used to throw at their homes for the department. “The phenomenal feature of von Neumann was that he could go to these parties and party and drink and whoop it up to the early hours of the morning, and then come in the next morning at 8:30, hold class, and give an absolutely lucid lecture. What happened is that some of the graduate students thought that the way to be like von Neumann was to live like him, and they couldn’t do it,” said Churchill Eisenhart ’34 *35.

To blow off steam, many students got into games, as players and creators both. Fine Hall’s common room held late-night poker games, with good cash on the line: “We used to play all night,” said Flood. “The janitor would come and sort of chew us out at 6 in the morning.” During the day, a visitor to the common room might see the nation’s mathematical brain-trust absorbed in games of Go, bridge, double solitaire, or chess, played classic or in whimsical variants. A favorite was a double-blind variant of chess called Kriegspiel. (Paul Erdős reportedly loved that game.) One student invented what he called “nonholonomic chess”; another invented a card game called Psychology, and another a card game called Goofspiel, which has since been used to teach concepts in game theory. The boast went out that Fine Hall “could produce a champion in any game that was played sitting down.” 

As for games played standing up, the department was enthusiastic, if unevenly talented. In addition to his feats as a climber, Professor Alexander played a mean game of tennis; reportedly, he is the one who arranged for showers to be installed in Fine Hall, so he could come to the office right from the courts. The graduate students played softball in the spring, using the black gowns they wore to dine in Procter Hall as makeshift bases. In time, they got up an annual softball tournament against the other departments; a faculty member later reported that, “at the annual departmental meeting to assess graduate students and to decide which ones you wished to encourage,” the department chair said, referring to D. Ransom Whitney *39, “Well, we absolutely have to have Whitney, because how can we beat the chemistry department otherwise?” Even Einstein tried to get into sports, reported game theorist Flood, although he was uncoordinated: “Once he had me try to teach him to play pingpong, and the ball ended up in his hair.” 

The core of the department’s social life, however, was afternoon tea, a department tradition to this day. The tradition predates Fine Hall; Oswald Veblen, an unswerving Anglophile, used to host tea receptions in Palmer Laboratory, heating the fluid with a Bunsen burner. When Fine Hall was built, he designed the common room with daily tea in mind, placing a kitchenette with a dishwasher — a rarity in the 1930s — right across the hall. (Veblen’s verse in the faculty song: “Here’s to Uncle Oswald V., lover of England and her tea; he is that mathematician of note, who uses four buttons to fasten his coat.”) Every few years, Veblen would call a graduate student into his office and inform him that he was now chairman of the tea club. “Everybody arranged his work so about 4 we would all gather there,” Alfred Foster *31 recalled. “A little committee would bring out the tea, and we would all stand around using hands and fingers to draw formulas.” (Blackboards were banned from the common room to limit clutter, but they appeared in the corridors nearby.) Funds for the daily event, including overtime pay for a janitor who helped clean up, came from the department’s research funds: “This was regarded as entirely proper because the social atmosphere of the afternoon tea facilitated research.” 

As for the big papers, they received the ministrations of Agnes Fleming and Gwen Blake, the secretaries, respectively, of Princeton’s and the Institute’s math departments. Their duties included typing up the researchers’ handwritten papers so they could be submitted to journals; in those days, men often didn’t know how to type, since it was considered women’s work. “So there would be Veblen and von Neumann and Einstein and Alexander and Weyl, all these people would be in a queue waiting with these monumental papers to get them typed,” Goldstine said. 

Einstein with Oswald Veblen in Princeton in 1921
Margot Einstein photographer. From the Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives Center, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ, USA.

Ultimately, much of the credit for making Fine Hall such an exciting place to live and work in these years belongs to Veblen. Veblen worked to bring talented refugees into the country during hard years; in 1941, for example, a former fellow at Princeton and the Institute, then at the University of Kentucky, received a letter from him “containing a list of young mathematicians in Germany who were in trouble because of the political situation” and asking whether a place for any could be found. (The man found a place for Richard Brauer, who went on to win the National Medal of Science.) In this, Veblen differed philosophically from some of his colleagues —– such as the mathematician G.D. Birkhoff, who warned that if newcomers came, “the number of similar positions available for young American mathematicians is certain to be lessened, with the attendant probability that some of them will be forced to become ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water.’” 

That didn’t happen. The mathematicians who came to Fine Hall and elsewhere from Europe, as well as the students they trained, expanded existing fields and created new ones. They contributed invaluably to the war effort: to code-breaking, to the design of bombs, to computing, to statistical research, to the calculation of the flight paths of bombers and the best attack patterns to use against fighter planes. In the process, they moved the global center of innovation and growth from Europe to the United States. In the 19th century, Göttingen, Germany, had been known the world over as the capital of mathematics; but Princeton had that disinction in the 20th. 

In all, the story of Fine Hall in the 1930s is a story about talented, irreplaceable characters coming to Princeton from all over the world and building here a little world of their own — making messes, making friends, and making history along the way. One last story about the town’s most famous resident: At a luncheon, someone asked Einstein, “How do you like it in this country?” Einstein replied “that he liked it very much, it was a great country, and he was grateful for what Institute founding director Abraham Flexner and others had done to bring him to Princeton. There was however one thing he really did not like, namely that people stopped him on the street and asked him for signatures and other things.” As the story goes, Lefschetz said to Einstein, “Well, Herr Einstein, I can tell you how to stop that.” 

“Oh, Professor Lefschetz,” Einstein said, “I would be so grateful. What can I do about it?” 

Lefschetz replied, “Cut your hair.” 

Elyse Graham ’07 is an assistant professor of digital humanities at Stony Brook University.