The weirdness of math’s golden age

Adventures in Fine Hall

By Elyse Graham ’07

“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.”

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

“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.)

A truly magnificent book:

Here is the PDF:

Click to access 35559997-Man-Who-Loved-Only-Numbers-Paul-Hoffman.pdf

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.”

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