#b#Hidden Figures’ Hidden Princeton Backstory#/b#
Editor’s Note: With a record-tying 14 nominations — and a director, Damien Chazelle, who grew up in Princeton — “La La Land” is the film with the most buzz, and with the most obvious area connection.
But another film that has critics talking is “Hidden Figures,” based on the true story of black female mathematicians working at NASA in the mid-20th century. It’s nominated in the best picture, best supporting actress, and best adapted screenplay categories. And, as Princeton-based open space advocate Stephen Hiltner notes, the film has some hidden Princeton connections, too:
There’s an interesting Princeton backstory to the movie Hidden Figures, which has been showing at the Garden Theater and is nominated for three Academy Awards. The backstory centers around the movie’s main character, Katherine G. Johnson — one of three extraordinary black women mathematicians depicted in the film. Despite racial prejudice at NASA, respect for Johnson’s mathematical mind grew to the point that John Glenn refused to climb in the rocket until Johnson had verified the math behind the flight’s trajectory.
On a hunch, I traced the mathematical lineage of Katherine Johnson and found that the string of mentors and advisors leads four generations back to Oswald Veblen, the great mathematician and visionary who played a quiet but decisive roles in building Princeton’s math department of the 1930s, and bringing the Institute for Advanced Study and luminaries like Einstein and Von Neumann to Princeton.
Another connection to the movie shows Veblen’s vision and courage, not only in helping Jewish scientists escape Nazi Germany, but in his early efforts to bring black scholars to Princeton. Johnson’s college professor, William Claytor, was the third African American to receive a PhD in mathematics but had been forced to take a position that allowed no time for research.
Veblen, aware of Claytor’s limited opportunities to exercise his brilliance, sought to bring Claytor to Princeton University in the 1930s, but the University did not accept “coloured persons.” Four years later, Veblen offered Claytor a position at the Institute, which was not subject to the university’s exclusions based on race. But by that time, Claytor had apparently grown disillusioned, and turned down the offer.
Hidden Figures also tells the story of Dorothy Vaughan, who in the movie teaches herself Fortran and figures out how to run a new computer that was otherwise baffling staff at NASA. It was women “computers” who figured out how to actually operate and program the early computers men built.
A similar story was told locally this past week, when two local computer societies collaborated to host a talk on the ENIAC, a World War II-era creation that “was the testbed on which the human race learned how to build and program computers.” Though not mentioned in the talk, it was the visionary Veblen who gave the go-ahead to fund construction of the ENIAC in Philadelphia.
The reason I happened to research these Princeton connections is that Veblen also championed another poorly treated entity whose contributions have long been downplayed — nature. Veblen essentially founded Princeton’s movement to preserve open space. He worked to acquire 610 acres that became the Institute Woods, and in 1957 the Veblens donated the land for Princeton’s first dedicated nature preserve, Herrontown Woods.
As president of the Friends of Herrontown Woods (FOHW.org), I have the good fortune not only to research Veblen’s remarkable legacy, but also to lead efforts to restore Herrontown Woods and the house and cottage the Veblens donated along with the land. Recently, we submitted to Mercer County an official proposal to rehabilitate these long boarded up historic structures. The Veblens, and the public, deserve an honest effort to repurpose these structures for the benefit of all.
Stephen K. Hiltner
Hiltner writes about Princeton’s nature at www.princetonnaturenotes.org, and about the work to save the Veblen House at www.veblenhouse.org.
#b#Lights, Camera, Trenton#/b#
‘Trenton makes and takes films” is the apt motto this week when a New Jersey production company premieres a video on Trenton’s art scene — just before it hits the television airwaves — and a Trenton-based company screens Hollywood’s Oscar-nominated shorts as a lead up to the annual televised Academy Awards on February 26.
First Trenton-headquartered PCK Media — founded by Emmy Award-winning producers with a long history of producing art and culture documentaries — will host a preview screening of its new television special highlighting Trenton’s art life. The event takes place at Trenton Social on Wednesday, February 22.
“The film looks at the Capitol City’s vibrant arts scene and explores how the arts are spurring new development,” says partner and Trenton resident Eric Schultz. “We visit Passage Theater, Artworks, Art All Day, Art All Night, talk with artists Jon Naar, Mel Leipzig, Leon Rainbow, and many others.” Trenton’s A-Team, New Jersey Capital Philharmonic, Trenton Punk Rock Festival, and plans for an arts district are also included.
The documentary, titled “State of the Arts: The Trenton Show,” will have its official broadcast premiere on Sunday, February 26, on WHYY at 11 a.m. and on NJTV at 8 p.m.
State of the Arts: The Trenton Show, Trenton Social, 449 South Broad Street, Trenton. Wednesday, February 22, 6:30 p.m.
Up next is the Trenton Film Society’s annual Oscar Shorts Festival at the Mill Hill Playhouse.
The festival runs Thursday, February 23, through Sunday, February 26, as a lead up to the celebrated annual Academy Awards — aka the Oscars — broadcast on Sunday, February 26.
The TFS will screen Oscar nominated short documentaries, live action, and animation. The festival concludes with an Oscar viewing party that includes a pre-show event, popcorn, and hot drinks.
Oscar Shorts, Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 East Front Street, Trenton. www.trentonfilmsociety.org.