Lately, I’ve been digging around the Oral History Project of the Department of Mathematics to learn more about one of my favorite Princeton traditions: teatime at Fine Hall. Here is what I found:
Before the old Fine Hall (now Jones Hall) was built in 1931, Professor Oswald Veblen had an office in Palmer Physical Laboratory (now Frist Campus Center) where he would invite students for tea. In the memory of Princeton mathematician Nathan Jacobson GS 34, “We had a room upstairs, with a kettle and a [B]unsen burner to heat the water — Palmer Laboratory is a physics laboratory”.
As Jacobson remembered, Veblen was an anglophile. The great geometer and topologist “dressed in English clothes; he had two four-buttoned suits … one green one and one dark one, that he wore on important occasions.”
When the Department of Mathematics finally found a home in Fine Hall, Veblen made tea an official tradition. Each afternoon in the new common room, people throughout the department and beyond would converge. When it came to sourcing the refreshments, the mathematicians’ analytical proclivities knew no bounds.
Longtime Department Chair Albert Tucker GS 32 recalled, “We bought our own cookies from the National Biscuit Company. They delivered wholesale right to Fine Hall. [John Landes Barnes] worked out an index on each kind of cookie … He wanted to get the most for the money.”
From the beginning, teatime was a vibrant venue for intellectual exchange. Alfred Foster GS 31 recounted, “Everybody arranged his work so [at] about 4:00 we would all gather there.
“We would all stand around using hands and fingers to draw formulas. You tried to follow the complex matters this way,” Foster said.
At teatime, aspiring mathematicians and physicists had the chance to interact with intellectual giants. Joseph Daly GS 39, who was pursuing a PhD in mathematical statistics in the early days of Fine Hall, remembered. “There was [Edward] Condon, [Eugene] Wigner, and all the guys who were fooling around with mass spectrographs and chasing positrons and I don’t know what all,” Daly said. “But it was a wonderful place to be, and you couldn’t help absorbing some of it no matter how dense you were.”
Not all the discussions at teatime were mathematical. “People were as ready to talk about mathematics as they were to play chess,” according to Shaun Wylie GS 37, a then-graduate student who would go on to break codes in World War II.
Indeed, fun often won over productivity. Jack Levine GS 34 wondered, “They just played games. I was curious: when did these people ever study, these graduate students?”
In a conversation with Tucker, Leon Cohen remarked, “You had a chance to talk to professors. You saw them as people, not just as mathematicians.” Teatime was an environment as personal as it was academic.
At teatime, people from across disciplines and institutions shared in the delight of intellectual communion. Students, faculty, math department affiliates, members from the Institute for Advanced Study, and mathematicians and scientists were all welcomed. However, the teatime gatherers still reflected the general lack of diversity at Princeton during this time.
I started reading these stories about the history of teatime because this semester, I have been hanging around Fine Hall a lot. Now nearly a century-old tradition, teatime is always a bright spot in my day. As I was reading these stories drawn from the wonderful Oral History Project organized by Tucker, I thought about how profoundly different the world was in 1930, a world in which the Great War was to be the last, and the work of great physicists, once an innocent bunch, had yet to pose Hamlet’s six-word query to humanity itself.
I thought about how Princeton has transformed, and is still transforming, from an exclusive tribe of white, male elites to an increasingly diverse community with as many perspectives on the world as students on campus. Despite these changes, there is some sense in which I saw my peers and myself in the ambitious students I read about. I saw my professors in men like Veblen, who seemed to have endless enthusiasm for his students. Indeed, the atmosphere of togetherness, fun, and shared inquiry that makes teatime at Fine Hall special has remained constant amid a changing world — a fixed point in a homeomorphism of eras, if you will.
Admittedly, not everything about teatime is the same. Perhaps it was a growing impatience for cookies and caffeine that explains the drift from 4 p.m. last century to 3 p.m. these days. A move to paper cups has solved an issue Foster remembered with displeasure: “When the cups were washed, the tea tasted of soap for quite a while.” Where Einstein, Gödel, and von Neumann once exchanged ideas whose echoes would be heard for a century, modern pioneers — from Peter Sarnak and Zoltán Szabó to June Huh and David Gabai — now lead a new generation of graduate students to the frontiers of mathematical thought. Naturally, the name Fine Hall itself has been lifted from the stately gables of what is now Jones Hall and applied to the decidedly more towering plain edifice we know and love today.
But these are mere trivialities. Even if it is a small entry in the matrix of Princeton University, teatime’s continuity of spirit is a testament to the inexhaustible joy of collective curiosity, a joy that unites Princetonians across three centuries. For me, spending teatime with my friends reminds me why I love mathematics. I think mathematics, like poetry or music, is about the joy of pushing the human imagination and creativity to its limits. To me, this activity is a vital part of living. After all, it is our creative capacity to imagine, to leap from the solid ground to an abstract world of metaphor, that makes us human. But this is not a solitary act. If there is a thrill greater than making this leap alone, it is making it together. Mathematics, like academic inquiry in general, is a collaborative act, carried out across communities ranging from a group of undergraduates discussing a problem set over tea, to a global network of scholars expanding the reach of the human imagination.
Teatime may be just a mathematical tradition, but I think its ethos belongs everywhere on campus. In a place often dominated by competition and academic pressure, I hope we can all find our teatime, our intellectual community that refreshes us, and reminds us how much fun it is to think.
Jack Gallahan is a contributing writer for The Prospect at the ‘Prince.’ He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Instagram @jack62832.