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 Yve-Alain Bois

Ellsworth Kelly's Train Landscape (1952–53) refers to the colors of fields seen from a train. © Ellsworth Kelly

How things that look apparently very simple are in fact much more complex than they seem

Ellsworth Kelly is one of the very first artists whose work I liked. Perhaps he was second, just after Piet Mondrian. One of the things I asked Kelly after we finally met and became friends, close to a quarter of a century ago, was why he had not answered a fan letter that I had written to him in my teens. He remembered the letter. He had received it at a time when he felt isolated, bypassed by a new generation of artists, and he had been struck by the fact that it came from a French teenager living in the middle of nowhere—he thought he might even have kept it. Since Kelly is a demon archivist, he found the darn letter, and he gave me a copy of it, which, unlike him, I immediately misplaced. But I read it, and it was humbling. First, because I realized I had misdated it in my memory, placing it three years too early—probably because the main event it described, my first encounter with his works, at a show of his lithographs at the Galerie Adrien Maeght in Paris, dated from even earlier to 1965. Second, because it was sheer adolescent drivel. At the time of the letter, Kelly was for me the purest representative of pure abstraction, whatever that is supposed to be.

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By Dani Rodrik

Barbara Smaller/The New Yorker Collection

When economists skip over real-world complications, it’s as if physicists spoke of a world without gravity.

When the 2013 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel (colloquially known as the “Economics Nobel”) was awarded to Eugene Fama and Robert Shiller, along with Lars Peter Hansen, many were puzzled by the selection. Fama and Shiller are both distinguished and highly regarded scholars, so it was not their qualifications that raised eyebrows. What seemed odd was that the committee had picked them together.

After all, the two economists seem to hold diametrically opposed views on how financial markets work. Fama, the University of Chicago economist, is the father of the “efficient market hypothesis,” the theory that asset prices reflect all publicly available information, with the implication that it is impossible to beat the market consistently. Shiller, the Yale economist, meanwhile, has spent much of his career demonstrating financial markets work poorly: they overshoot, are subject to “bubbles” (sustained rises in asset prices that cannot be explained by fundamentals), and are often driven by “behavioral” rather than rational forces. Could both these scholars be right? Was the Nobel committee simply hedging its bets?

While one cannot read the jury’s mind, its selection highlighted a central feature of economics—and a key difference between it and the natural sciences. Economics deals with human behavior, which depends on social and institutional context. That context in turn is the creation of human behavior, purposeful or not. This implies that propositions in economic science are typically context-specific, rather than universal. The best, and most useful, economic theories are those that draw clear causal links from a specific set of contextual assumptions to predicted outcomes.

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By Juan Maldacena

Two papers written by Albert Einstein and Members at the Institute in 1935 on quantum mechanics and black holes initially seemed to be completely disconnected but recent research by Juan Maldacena suggests that they are closely connected.

Can the weird quantum mechanical property of entanglement give rise to wormholes connecting far away regions in space?

In 1935, Albert Einstein and collaborators wrote two papers at the Institute for Advanced Study. One was on quantum mechanics [1] and the other was on black holes [2]. The paper on quantum mechanics is very famous and influential. It pointed out a feature of quantum mechanics that deeply troubled Einstein. The paper on black holes pointed out an interesting aspect of a black hole solution with no matter, where the solution looks like a wormhole connecting regions of spacetime that are far away. Though these papers seemed to be on two completely disconnected subjects, recent research has suggested that they are closely connected.

Einstein’s theory of general relativity tells us that spacetime is dynamical. Spacetime is similar to a rubber sheet that can be deformed by the presence of matter. A very drastic deformation of spacetime is the formation of a black hole. When there is a large amount of matter concentrated in a small enough region of space, this can collapse in an irreversible fashion. For example, if we filled a sphere the size of the solar system with air, it would collapse into a black hole. When a black hole forms, we can define an imaginary surface called “the horizon”; it separates the region of spacetime that can send signals to the exterior from the region that cannot. If an astronaut crosses the horizon, she can never come back out. She does not feel anything special as she crosses the horizon. However, once she crosses, she will be inevitably crushed by the force of gravity into a region called “the singularity” (Figure 1a).

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An IAS teatime conversation in 1935 introduces an ongoing debate over quantum physics.

"Einstein Attacks Quantum Theory” read the New York Times headline of May 4, 1935. The article continued:

Professor Albert Einstein will attack science’s important theory of quantum mechanics, a theory of which he was a sort of grandfather. He concludes that while it is “correct” it is not “complete.” With two colleagues at the Institute for Advanced Study here, the noted scientist is about to report to the American Physical Society what is wrong with the theory of quantum mechanics. The quantum theory with which science predicts with some success inter-atomic happenings does not meet the requirements for a satisfactory physical theory, Professor Einstein will report in a joint paper with Dr. Boris Podolsky and Dr. N. Rosen.

Two years after he joined the Institute’s Faculty, Einstein coauthored the referenced paper “Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality be Considered Complete?” with Podolsky and Rosen, generally referred to as EPR. Einstein had recruited Podolsky and Rosen as Members of the Institute in 1934. In a letter dated November 10, 1933, to Abraham Flexner, the Institute’s founding Director, Einstein described Podolsky as “one of the most brilliant of the younger men who has worked and published with [Paul] Dirac.”

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Charles Simonyi

The IAS Questionnaire: Charles Simonyi, Chairman of the Institute's Board of Trustees, reveals what makes him curious, the most surprising thing he's learned, and the question he would most like answered.

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