A couple of about my age was standing in front of the chapel, holding a campus map but looking very lost. As I walked past, the man said, “Excuse me...” in a heavy accent, perhaps Russian. I asked if I could help, and they said, almost in unison, “Where are we?” “In front of the chapel” was true but not helpful, so I looked at their map. I have good map skills, but even so it was pretty confusing, because they were holding it upside down, so all the building names were upside down, too, even the ones they had carefully highlighted in yellow.
After turning it right side up, the better to read the building names, I pointed out the chapel (now recognizable), and told them where they were. But what they really wanted to know was how to get to Fine Hall. Conjecture: One or the other (or both) was a famous mathematician, and there was a gathering at Fine? In any case, it was now easy to guide them — turn right on Washington Road and look for the really tall building. I watched to be sure that they made the turn, and no doubt they got there safely.
Princeton does a fine job with its online map, the one that can be neatly printed on a single piece of paper. I’ve seen these in all kinds of hands over the years, and I’ve given out my fair share to random visitors as well; I even used to carry an extra one since it was so useful. On the other hand, the University does less well in identifying buildings when you’re standing in front of them. You’ll look in vain for a name on the computer science building where I hang out. The E-Quad says, “School of Engineering and Applied Science,” but when did anyone ever call it that? Fields, Forbes, Foulke, Frist, Friend, Frick — it sounds like an excerpt from Dr Seuss. Don’t confuse Fisher Hall, home of the economists, with Fisher Hall at Whitman. If you’re sick, go to McCosh, not McCosh.
In retrospect, I wonder if my tourists really wanted the old Fine, which is where the mathematicians used to hang out. Perhaps I should have sent them to Jones. That’s the current name for the building attached to Frist Campus Center that was Fine, when the current Frist was Palmer Labs (not to be confused with Palmer House, the university’s up-scale bed and breakfast). Palmer Labs used to be home to the physics department before it departed for Jadwin Hall, not to be confused with Jadwin Gymnasium, which is even further away.
Two statues overlook the north doorway of Palmer (oops, Frist). The one on the left is Benjamin Franklin, readily identified by his distinctive coat, which was apparently deemed quite fashionable when he was the American ambassador in Paris from 1776 to 1785. The other statue is Joseph Henry, who is much less well known, though it’s his name on Joseph Henry House, just a stone’s throw from Nassau Hall, and perhaps Henry Hall, next door to Foulke Hall. Henry, who taught here from 1832 to 1848, was an exceptionally accomplished scientist of the time, second only to Franklin; he discovered much about how electricity and magnetism work and even lent his name to the unit of inductance, the henry. Surely immortality is having your name used for a fundamental unit of measurement and spelled in lower case, like volt or watt.
Back to the statues. In the 1930s, there were two scientists on campus whose wives were pregnant and due to deliver at almost the same time. The men (who I shall call Smith and Jones) agreed that the parents of the first child to arrive could choose whichever of the two famous names they preferred, and the other parents would take the leftover. I heard this story from Joseph Henry “Smith,” who I knew well, but I know nothing about Benjamin Franklin “Jones.” One also wonders whether the wives concurred with this decision process, and of course what might have happened if the newborns were female, though those are stories for another time.
I’ve wandered around a fair number of university campuses over the years. Some of them carefully label each building, so there’s no doubt about where you are, but others, like Princeton, seem to prefer a sort of security by obscurity: If you don’t know what a building is named or what it houses, perhaps you don’t need to know. So always carry a map, and be sure you know which way is up.
Brian Kernighan GS ’69 is a computer science professor and a Forbes faculty adviser. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.