Articles by IAS Faculty

Can We Survive Technology?

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."

The Origins and Motivations of Univalent Foundations

by Vladimir Voevodsky 

Diagram by Voevodsky
This three-dimensional diagram is an example of the kind of ­”formulas” that Voevodsky would have to use to support his arguments about 2-theories.

Professor Voevodsky’s Personal Mission to Develop Computer Proof Verification to Avoid Mathematical Mistakes

In January 1984, Alexander Grothendieck submitted to the French National Centre for Scientific Research his proposal “Esquisse d’un Programme.” Soon copies of this text started circulating among mathematicians. A few months later, as a first-year undergraduate at Moscow University, I was given a copy of it by George Shabat, my first scientific adviser. After learning some French with the sole purpose of being able to read this text, I started to work on some of the ideas outlined there.

In 1988 or 1989, I met Michael Kapranov who was equally fascinated by the perspectives of developing mathematics of new “higher-dimensional” objects inspired by the theory of categories and 2-categories.
The first paper that we published together was called “∞-Groupoids as a Model for a Homotopy Category.” In it, we claimed to provide a rigorous mathematical formulation and a proof of Grothendieck’s idea connecting two classes of mathematical objects: ∞-groupoids and homotopy types.

Later we decided that we could apply similar ideas to another top mathematical problem of that time: to construct motivic cohomology, conjectured to exist in a 1987 paper by Alexander Beilinson, Robert MacPherson (now Professor in the School of Mathematics), and Vadim Schechtman.

In the summer of 1990, Kapranov arranged for me to be accepted to graduate school at Harvard without applying. After a few months, while he was at Cornell and I was at Harvard, our mathematical paths diverged. I concentrated my efforts on motivic cohomology and later on motivic homotopy theory. My notes dated March 29, 1991, start with the question “What is a homotopy theory for algebraic varieties or schemes?”

The field of motivic cohomology was considered at that time to be highly speculative and lacking firm foundation. The groundbreaking 1986 paper “Algebraic Cycles and Higher K-theory” by Spencer Bloch was soon after publication found by Andrei Suslin to contain a mistake in the proof of Lemma 1.1. The proof could not be fixed, and almost all of the claims of the paper were left unsubstantiated.

A Declaration of Freedom and Equality

Exploring the Arguments of Independence 

The following text is excerpted from Our Declaration: A Reading of the ­Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2014) by Danielle Allen, UPS Foundation Professor in the School of Social Science.

The Declaration of Independence matters because it helps us see that we cannot have freedom without equality. It is out of an egalitarian commitment that a people grows—a people that is capable of protecting us all collectively, and each of us individually, from domination. If the Declaration can stake a claim to freedom, it is only because it is so clear-eyed about the fact that the people’s strength resides in its equality.

The Declaration also conveys another lesson of paramount importance. It is this: language is one of the most potent resources each of us has for achieving our own political empowerment. The men who wrote the Declaration of Independence grasped the power of words. This reveals itself in the laborious processes by which they brought the Declaration, and their revolution, into being. It shows itself forcefully, of course, in the text’s own eloquence.

When we think about how to achieve political equality, we have to attend to things like voting rights and the right to hold office. We have to foster economic opportunity and understand when excessive material inequality undermines broad democratic political participation. But we also have to cultivate the capacity of citizens to use language effectively enough to influence the choices we make together.
 

Joan W. Scott's Critical History of Inequality

by Clyde Plumauzille 

Professor Joan Scott at the School of Social Science’s twenty-fifth anniversary conference in 1997,  “25 Years: Social Science and Social Change”
Professor Joan Scott at the School of Social Science’s twenty-fifth anniversary conference in 1997, “25 Years: Social Science and Social Change” (Photo: Randall Hagadorn)

Revealing Implicit Structuring Norms and Challenging Categories of Difference

Critique will be the art of voluntary insubordination.”1 Epigraph to her essay ­”History-writing as Critique,”2 this quote from Michel Foucault is the key to understanding the epistemological journey of the American historian Joan W. Scott. Professor Emerita at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, Scott is the author of numerous works on gender, feminism, and citizenship. A prolific and dynamic scholar, she has gone from studying social history to studying the history of women and then, in the 1980s, to studying the history of gender, becoming one of the first theorists in the field. With each shift in her historiographical focus, Scott has found the material needed to fuel her critical thought and shed light on the blind spots of social systems from the time of the French Revolution until the present day. Always on the lookout for history’s paradoxes, she has spent her entire career combatting the naturalization of differences and inequalities that stem from these contradictions.

As a historian and critical feminist, she has called for the concepts used in the social sciences to remain categories of critical intervention within political and academic debates. That’s why, from her seminal article “Gender: A Useful Category of Analysis,” published in 1986, to the recent publication in France of her book De l’utilité du genre in 2012, Scott has continued to highlight the political, social, and even imaginary issues that can only be understood through the conceptualization of sexual difference.3 To that end, she has zeroed in on French republican universalism, making it her preferred field of research, and has regularly weighed in on the public discussions surrounding its paradoxes. The politicization of sexual issues in France during the 1990s and the debates surrounding parité, domestic partnerships, and the wearing of Islamic headscarves have allowed her to reflect upon and discuss the reformulation of the republican contract by using real-life examples.

Now that “gender theory” has fallen under attack in France, denounced by its critics as an ideology that destroys the natural order and upsets the political and social balance, it seems fitting, if not crucial, that we take a look back on the ever-changing thoughts of a historian who has contributed greatly to the introduction of the concept of gender within the field of historiography.

Climate Change and the Rise of an Empire

By Nicola Di Cosmo 

Did an unusually favorable climate create conditions for a new political order under Chinggis Khan?

In his recent book Global Crisis: War, Climate Change & Catas­trophe in the Seventeenth Century, Geoffrey Parker states: “although climate change can and does produce human catastrophe, few historians include the weather in their analyses.” This is generally true, and the distance between historians and the weather may not have improved (indeed, may have been underscored) by the evolution of environmental history as a separate branch of historical research. Moreover, while the collection of historical climate data has never been more robust, instances of collaboration between scientists and historians are still very few and far between. In 2006, the National Science Foundation launched a program for research on Coupled Natural and Human Systems, capturing the need to model the interaction between societies and environments. Few of the projects funded so far, however, involve a long-term historical perspective or engage actual historical questions. One of these, funded last year, is titled “Pluvials, Droughts, Energetics, and the Mongol Empire” and is led by Neil Pederson, Amy Hessl, Nachin Baatarbileg, Kevin Anchukaitis, and myself.

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