If you think that Princeton’s second annual Pi Day celebration is a little corny, then what do you make of a day that attracts 10,000 people or more to celebrate events that never happened, carried out by people who never existed? That’s been happening every year since 1954 on June 16, when literary-minded people celebrate the day in 1904 used as the setting for James Joyce’s fictional character Leopold Bloom in the novel “Ulysses.”
Now Bloomsday is a half century tradition in Dublin, attracting tourists from around the world to an array of events that span almost a week.
So here in Princeton, we celebrate the birthday of Albert Einstein — this March 14 is the 132nd anniversary of his birth — and enjoy the irony of 3-14 also being the first three numbers in the value of pi, the mathematical constant that Einstein probably appreciated when he was 3.14 years old. Given that March 14 this year falls on a Monday, the organizers of Pi Day are calling it “Geek Freak Weekend” and kicking it off on Friday, March 11.
But why limit the fun to Einstein and variations on pi and its culinary homonym? The “geek freak” might just be a clever marketing concept by the clever Mimi Omiecinski, the proprietor of the Princeton Tour Company and the irrepressible booster of all things Princeton. But it made me wonder: Here in Princeton, we’ve got geeks, and enough celebrity geeks — all actual people who have done real things — to turn a week in March into an extended festival for residents and visitors alike.
Herewith a modest proposal for creating a “Geek Week.” It will not happen overnight and it will require the participation of more sponsors than just Omiecinski and her co-promoter, Joy Chen of JOY Cards on Chambers Street. And, yes, some venues will demur, saying they are not open to the general public. But it can evolve. Pretty much off the top of my mortal-sized brain, here’s a possible seven-day Geek Week schedule:
Day 1.), or whatever day in the sequence March 14 falls on, Einstein and Pi Day. More than 1,500 people showed up for last year’s inaugural event. For now the Einstein memorabilia in town is scattered among the Historical Society of Princeton, the Institute for Advanced Study, and — improbably — Landau’s clothing store on Nassau Street. (See my column of June 26, 2002, for the explanation of this.) Ultimately, one suspects, all of this will come together in one spot, a suitable stop on a visitors’ tour that would also swing by his house at 112 Mercer Street.
Day 2.) The Institute for Advanced Study. We lesser lights all think “institute” and then say “Einstein.” A new book just published by Linda G. Arntzenius, part of Arcadia Press’s “Images of America” series, chronicles in words and pictures (official portraits, news photos, and candid family snapshots) the history of this remarkable organization, founded in 1930 by the family that sold its Bamberger’s department store in June, 1929, just months before the stock crash. Arntzenius will discuss and sign her book on Saturday, March 12, from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library.
The institute’s day at my imagined Geek Week could feature (along with a walk in its famous woods) the work of a different scientist or researcher each year. Could we get Freeman Dyson to kick it off? How about the daughter of John von Neumann, who led the team that developed the world’s first electronic computer?
Day 3.) The Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, and the other Route 1-based research institutes. Science-minded tourists could visit the PPPL, along with the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab and some of the vestiges of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. A bus tour would have to swing by the amazing “conehead” building off Schalks Crossing Road.
Day 4.) The Sarnoff Center, birthplace of color television and — more recently — high definition television. There used to be a repository of the artifacts of General David Sarnoff at the facility on Route 1 and Washington Road, but that since was lost in a budget cut. The last we heard the College of New Jersey was considering making room for the collection.
The Sarnoff tour could include not only what has happened at the center itself, but also the accomplishment of the “Sarnoff spin-offs.” Perhaps Greg Olsen could be a presenter — he will speak on the promise of clean energy on Saturday, March 12, at 3 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library.
Day 5.) F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the literary tour of Princeton. Here we have another excellent starting point: The second-floor library of Cottage Club, the undergraduate eating club where Fitzgerald wrote his first novel, “This Side of Paradise.” A tour of the homes of the rich and famous writers could include the residences of John O’Hara and Peter Benchley.
The literary tour could include a stop at the Princeton Cemetery to visit the grave of Sylvia Beach and then a visit to Firestone Library, where the papers of Beach are now stored. Who’s Sylvia Beach? A resident of Princeton for several years in her early 20s, Beach became the partner of the owner of the Parisian bookstore that published “Ulysses” in 1922, after more conventional publishing houses had turned it down as scandalous.
Day 6.) Bill Bradley. Wait! We thought this was about geeks, not jocks. We could make the point that Bradley’s life tells as much about scholarship and politics as it does about sports. The place to host a repository of Bradley memorabilia, including film of his senior year, when he brought Princeton to within one game of the 1965 NCAA basketball championship, would be the lobby of the old Dillon Gym on the main campus.
For a Geek Week symposium you could have a forum on the
ideal of the scholar-athlete, real or imagined. Bradley could be a panelist, an example of how it was done in the 1960s. Another speaker: Former Princeton president William G. Bowen, who co-wrote a book that asserts that the ideal has not been achieved in most cases. See U.S. 1, March 14, 2001, for thoughts on Princeton athletics and Bowen’s “The Game of Life.”
Day 7.) Paul Robeson. No, like Bradley, he’s not a geek, but his life encompasses all that Bradley’s does. And more: Add to the scholar-athlete credentials an impressive resume as a performer. And consider that Robeson achieved all this despite the backdrop of discrimination that persisted throughout his lifetime (U.S. 1, September 14, 2005, and October 15, 2003).
Eventually there could be a study center for the life of Paul Robeson: The house in which Robeson was born in 1898 at the corner of Green and Witherspoon streets. The house is now owned by the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, where Robeson’s father was minister while Paul was a young child. Architect Bob Hillier has purchased the houses between the church and Robeson’s birthplace, and he is aware of the historical significance of the neighboring property.
The Robeson tour brings us back to Einstein, with whom this all began. On several occasions when Robeson performed in town, he visited with Einstein, with whom he worked on an attempt to make lynching a federal crime. On Robeson’s last visit, in 1952, Robeson and Einstein spent six hours together at 112 Mercer Street. What a conversation that must have been.
Mimi Omiecinski’s “Geek Freak Weekend” won’t turn into “Geek Week” overnight. But we could set a goal of expanding it to a few more days by, say, four years from now. That would be March 14, 2015 — 3-14-15. An auspicious date for pi aficionados. Just think of it as Geek Week, Princeton’s version of March madness.