Articles from the Institute Letter

Additional articles from new and past issues of the Institute Letter will continue to be posted over time and as they become available.

By Sverker Sörlin

Will It Become Decisive Enough?

What do the humanities have to do with the environment? As they are commonly understood, environmental problems are issues that manifest themselves primarily in the environment itself. Natural scientists research these problems and suggest solutions, aided by technology, economics, and policy. It was scientists who defined the modern usage of the concept of “the environment” after World War II. Ecologist William Vogt famously used it in his 1948 volume The Road to Survival: “We live in one world in an ecological—an environmental—sense.” He and others at the time thought of “the environment” as a composite of issues that had been in the making for some time—most prominently, population growth, which had been much discussed since the World Population Conference in Geneva in 1927, but also soil erosion, desertification (observed by Paul Sears in his famous 1935 book Deserts on the March), pollution, food, poverty, and starvation.

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Doubts Arise Over Claims of Evidence for Cosmic Inflation

In September, Planck researchers confirmed Member Raphael Flauger’s assertion that the level of galaxy dust in this Planck slide was underestimated by the BICEP team.
In September, Planck researchers confirmed Member Raphael Flauger’s assertion that the level of galaxy dust in this Planck slide was underestimated by the BICEP team.

“Space Ripples Reveal Big Bang’s Smoking Gun,” read the New York Times headline last March 17. In a seemingly momentous news conference at the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, researchers using a BICEP (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization) telescope at the South Pole announced that they had detected the first direct evidence for cosmic inflation, a theory about the very beginnings of the universe first proposed in 1979. 

The BICEP announcement claimed that the first images of gravitational waves, or ripples in spacetime, had been detected, a tantalizing and long hoped-for connection between quantum mechanics and general relativity. The landmark claim ignited the field and led to talk of a new era of cosmology.

At the Institute for Advanced Study, Raphael Flauger, Member (2013–14) in the School of Natural Sciences, began looking closely at the data. The year prior, Flauger had analyzed the first round of cosmic microwave background data released by the Planck satellite, a mission of the European Space Agency, which the BICEP team had used in its findings. 

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by Sverker Sörlin

Are Humans a Major and Defining Force on the Geological Scale?

The word “Anthropocene” has had a formidable career in the last few years and is often heard among global change scientists and scholars, in policy circles, green popular movements, and think tanks, and in all spheres where environmental and climate issues are discussed. In the literal, and limited, sense it is a geological concept, on a par with other periods or epochs during the Cenozoic era, such as the Holocene (“Recent Whole,” the period since the last glaciation, ca. eleven thousand years ago). The word anthropos (Greek for “human”) in it indicates that humans, as a collectivity across time, serve as a major and defining force on the geological scale.

Whether this is so is a matter of definition, and it is an ongoing and open issue whether this is the case. The Royal Geological Society of London handles these kinds of issues through its Stratigraphy Commission, which expects to be able to present its view on the matter to the Society by 2016. The chief criterion in their search for evidence is whether there will be enough lasting and significant traits left of the “strata” of the Anthropocene to merit it an individual geological period, or epoch (Zalasiewic et al. 2011). This is less a philosophical or judgmental than an empirical issue. Are the assembled impacts and remnants of human activities in the lithosphere, biosphere, atmosphere, pedosphere (the layer of soils), and cryosphere (the layer of ice) so overwhelming that we can be certain that the “deep future” will still be able to register the strata of humanity embedded into Earth itself?

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Of Historical Note

The following excerpt is from the article “Can We Survive Technology?” by John von Neumann, published by Fortune magazine in 1955. Von Neumann was among the Institute’s first Professors and its youngest. Having pioneered the modern computer, game theory, nuclear deterrence, and more, von Neumann illuminated the fields of pure and applied mathematics, computer science, physics, and economics. He remained a Professor at IAS until his death in 1957.

"All experience shows that even smaller technological changes than those now in the cards profoundly transform political and social relationships. Experience also shows that these transformations are not a priori predictable and that most contemporary 'first guesses' concerning them are wrong. For all these reasons, one should take neither present difficulties nor presently proposed reforms too seriously.

"The one solid fact is that the difficulties are due to an evolution that, while useful and constructive, is also dangerous. Can we produce the required adjustments with the necessary speed? The most hopeful answer is that the human species has been subjected to similar tests before and seems to have a congenital ability to come through, after varying amounts of trouble. To ask in advance for a complete recipe would be unreasonable. We can specify only the human qualities required: patience, flexibility, intelligence."

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by Monica H. Green

Monica Green (left) joins a conversation hosted by Alan Alda (right) on engaging a general audience through the craft of storytelling. (Photo: Amy Ramsey)
Monica Green (left) joins a conversation hosted by Alan Alda (right) on engaging a general audience through the craft of storytelling. (Photo: Amy Ramsey)

A Year (Well, Nine Months) in the Life of an IAS Member

The Institute is a remarkably modest place. Like all Members of the School of Historical Studies, I was provided a lovely apartment, a simple office (with computer), access to both the Institute’s libraries and those of Princeton University, lunch in the dining hall, tea in the afternoon. So how does new knowledge come out of such a simple mix? Juxtaposition! So much of the wealth of insight I’ve had this year (and there’s been a lot of it) has come from the chance conversations, the oblique reference in a lecture, the reference exchanged in the hallway.

The world of scholarship is a very different place than when I was a Member here for the first time in 1990–92. There was an Internet then, I suppose, but I was not yet a user. I was not yet using email, there was no Google, no online digital reproductions of unique medieval manuscripts that I could call up for viewing within seconds, rather than having to travel thousands of miles to get to distant libraries during their rare opening hours or buying expensive films that had to be strung up on a microfilm viewer (ugh!) for long, eyeball-shrinking, mind-numbing sessions. So much of the world of knowledge is now at my fingertips; I can go for hours without ever leaving my desk. So what is the value of the IAS in such a hyper-connected world? Even more than twenty years ago, I found that the richness of this place lies in the human interactions, the analogueness (if you will) of life at this community in the woods.

Much of my work this year has been in collaboration with scholars elsewhere, building on projects already many years in the making. But my work and theirs has been infinitely enriched by the daily stimuli I’ve had from my colleagues here at IAS. Here are a few vignettes.

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