Where the great brains lived, from Albert Einstein and John von Neumann to Richard Feynman and John Wheeler
In front of Albert Einstein’s house on Mercer Street
Princeton is a lovely, quaint town, full of leafy streets and clapboard houses that could be straight out of New England. It is a great place for walking, and — for the many brilliant minds who have resided in the town — pondering deep thoughts as they strolled.
In recent years, it has begun to attract an eclectic group of tourists — those interested in the history of ideas. While so many great writers, scientists and other luminaries lived there, their houses are unmarked and, without exception, currently occupied by other people. None have been turned into museums. Therefore, to plan a walking tour of the great thinkers’ former homes one needs to look up their addresses in advance and plot out a route, while being careful not to disturb the present-day residents.
Another view of Einstein’s house
Which of the houses is the very smartest? That’s easy. Albert Einstein’s house on 112 Mercer Street, where he lived until his death in 1955, would rise to the top of anyone’s house IQ list. Mix it the fact that Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek and writer Betsy Devine also lived there, and it is without question the brainiest. Einstein specified in his will that it should never be turned into a memorial or a museum. Nevertheless, the furniture Einstein used is now in a museum: the Historical Society of Princeton.
Einstein’s furniture, Historical Society of Princeton
Now what about second place. That’s a tough choice. There’s computational pioneer John von Neumann’s large house on 26 Westcott Road and mathematician Kurt Goedel’s much smaller house on 145 Linden Lane. Richard Feynman lived in Princeton during his PhD days working under noted theoretical physicist John Wheeler. Feynman didn’t have a house, but rather resided in the Graduate College in a dormitory.
Door leading to Feynman’s residence in Princeton Graduate College
Feynman often visited Wheeler in his house on 95 Battle Road.
John Wheeler’s Former House
John and Janette Wheeler, along with two of their children (the third was born later), moved into the Battle Road house on September 1, 1939, the date when World War II began in Europe, and a key paper by Wheeler and Bohr on nuclear fission was published. They lived in the house for many years, hosting Bohr, Feynman, and many others.
John and Janette Wheeler in the 1930s
After the Wheelers sold the house, it was acquired by noted Indian-American mathematical physicist Harish-Chandra and his wife Lalitha (who stills owns it, as far as I can tell).
Indian-American mathematical physicist Harish-Chandra
Because two acclaimed thinkers lived at 95 Battle Road, one might make a strong case for it being the second-smartest house in Princeton, next to Einstein’s. Princeton certainly has enough brainy domiciles to go around.
Paul Halpern is the author of fifteen popular science books, including The Quantum Labyrinth: How Richard Feynman and John Wheeler Revolutionized Time and Reality