School of Natural Sciences
By Robbert Dijkgraaf
I am honored and heartened to have joined the Institute for Advanced Study this summer as its ninth Director. The warmness of the welcome that my family and I have felt has surpassed our highest expectations. The Institute certainly has mastered the art of induction.
The start of my Directorship has been highly fortuitous. On July 4, I popped champagne during a 3 a.m. party to celebrate the LHC’s discovery of a particle that looks very much like the Higgs boson—the final element of the Standard Model, to which Institute Faculty and Members have contributed many of the theoretical foundations. I also became the first Leon Levy Professor at the Institute due to the great generosity of the Leon Levy Foundation, founded by Trustee Shelby White and her late husband Leon Levy, which has endowed the Directorship. Additionally, four of our Professors in the School of Natural Sciences—Nima Arkani-Hamed, Juan Maldacena, Nathan Seiberg, and Edward Witten—were awarded the inaugural Fundamental Physics Prize of the Milner Foundation for their path-breaking contributions to fundamental physics. And that was just the first month.
Nearly a century ago, Abraham Flexner, the founding Director of the Institute, introduced the essay “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.” It was a passionate defense of the value of the freely roaming, creative spirit, and a sharp denunciation of American universities at the time, which Flexner considered to have become large-scale education factories that placed too much emphasis on the practical side of knowledge. Columbia University, for example, offered courses on “practical poultry raising.” Flexner was convinced that the less researchers needed to concern themselves with direct applications, the more they could ultimately contribute to the good of society.
By John Hopfield
All of us who have watched as a friend or relative has disappeared into the fog of Alzheimer’s arrive at the same truth. Although we recognize people by their visual appearance, what we really are as individual humans is determined by how our brains operate. The brain is certainly the least understood organ in the human body. If you ask a cardiologist how the heart works, she will give an engineering description of a pump based on muscle contraction and valves between chambers. If you ask a neurologist how the brain works, how thinking takes place, well . . . Do you remember Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, full of fantastical evolutionary explanations, such as the one about how the elephant got its trunk? They are remarkably similar to a medical description of how the brain works.
The annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience attracts over thirty thousand registrants. It is not for lack of effort that we understand so little of how the brain functions. The problem is one of the size, complexity, and individuality of the human brain. Size: the human brain has approximately one hundred billion nerve cells, each connecting to one thousand others. Complexity: there are one hundred different types of nerve cells, each with its own detailed properties. Individuality: all humans are similar, but the operation of each brain is critically dependent on its individual details. Your particular pattern of connections between nerve cells contains your personality, your language skills, your knowledge of family, your college education, and your golf swing.
By Graham Farmelo
On Wednesday, July 4, shortly after 4 a.m., the Institute’s new Director, Robbert Dijkgraaf, was in Bloomberg Hall, cracking open three bottles of vintage champagne to begin a rather unusual party. He was among the scientists who had been in the Hall’s lecture theater since 3 a.m. to watch a presentation from Geneva on the latest results from the CERN laboratory’s Large Hadron Collider. In the closing moments, after CERN’s Director-General Rolf Heuer cautiously claimed the discovery of a new sub-atomic particle—“I think we have it, yes?”—applause broke out in the CERN auditorium and in the Bloomberg Hall lecture theater. Within minutes, the IAS party was underway.
The new particle shows several signs that it is the Higgs boson, the only missing piece of the Standard Model, which gives an excellent account of nature’s electromagnetic, weak, and strong interactions. Although some physicists had come to doubt whether the boson existed, Nima Arkani-Hamed, Professor in the Institute’s School of Natural Sciences, was so confident that in 2007 he bet a year’s salary that it would be detected at the Large Hadron Collider. In the week before the CERN presentation, Arkani-Hamed invited colleagues to the party and organized the catering. Convinced that he had won his bet, he bought three bottles of champagne, including two of Special Cuvée Bollinger.
By Aristotle Socrates
The desire to discover distant, rare, and strange objects dominated twentieth-century astronomy, for which increasingly larger and more sensitive telescopes were constructed.
By Dan Burt
A sign and eight low buildings pass
unnoticed in a field the size of Central
Park: a wall-flower by a college town.
Wandering its halls, one chair offices,
bare egg white walls, nothing stands out until
I reach a lounge where mathematical
notations – integers, fractions, powers,
roots, Greek letters, brackets, slashes – weave
arabesques of genesis and infant stars
for paper napkin audience and nibbled
chocolate bars, on slate where palimpsests
and marginalia in coloured chalks suggest
a coffee break authored this text
a plaque below it warns, DO NOT ERASE.