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.
Derek Bermel, the Institute’s Artist-in-Residence since 2009, organized the Edward T. Cone Concert Series as well as dozens of conversations with poets, writers, composers, and musicians during his appointment, which ended in June. These included performances in Wolfensohn Hall by violinist Midori, pianist Jeremy Denk, inventive groups like eighth blackbird and the Borromeo String Quartet, as well as a reading by Broadway actors of his musical Golden Motors. He created a new series of Writers Conversations that probed the nature of creativity and collaboration with artists, poets, directors, and writers, including Steve Bodow, producer and writer for the Daily Show, poet Tracy K. Smith shortly before she won the Pulitzer Prize, and composer Stephen Sondheim who called art “a kind of puzzle.”
While at the Institute, Bermel collaborated with Helmut Hofer, Professor in the School of Mathematics, on a musical piece inspired by symplectic dynamics, a mathematical theory of dynamical systems. In February, the JACK Quartet performed Derek’s clarinet quintet “A Short History of the Universe (as related by Nima Arkani-Hamed),” inspired by lectures he attended by Arkani-Hamed, Professor in the School of Natural Sciences.
What was your approach when you first started as the Institute’s Artist-in-Residence?
I’d say my approach has been fairly consistent. I’ve always been interested to make contact with people here. I only wish that I could have gone to more lectures, seen more presentations, participated even more. The Institute is a very rich place. There’s quite a bit below the surface, and it was clear to me right from the beginning that the Faculty and Members here were all working on fascinating projects; some of them I could only grasp skeletally, nonetheless it was well worth the effort.
By Nigel Smith
I should admit at the outset to a guilty conscience. I should have been a physicist (it was my best subject), but around the age of fifteen was converted to the humanities by an enthusiastic English teacher who had been a professional actor. Plato’s suspicion of the artist survives in me somewhere. When I went to university to read English and history, I thought studying literature would help me be a better person, that it would lead to some kind of moral and ethical wisdom, and that may finally be true, but not in any straightforward or obvious way. It did at least keep me out of harm’s way by making the library the place I most wanted to be, reading books.
Since at least the eighteenth century, our sense of literature, when compared with science, has been characterized at a certain aesthetic extreme. Oscar Wilde’s much quoted statement in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of its best versions: “All art is quite useless.” To be literature, a work of literary creativity must dissociate itself from that which is useful. In this sense, utility and artistic value must be separated, like Immanuel Kant’s “purposeful purposelessness.”
Yet even with these arguments in mind, we live with the inescapability of literature, and that its greatest examples elicit enthusiastic admiration and, in the reading, great pleasure. One typical lunchtime conversation in my year at IAS was concerned with the significance of Giovanni Boccaccio, drawing in a classical philosopher, an ancient historian, and a literary critic. Another was on the considerable influence of Cornelius Tacitus as a writer. In nearly every Monday lunchtime talk in the School of Historical Studies during the past academic year, the issue of the function of metaphor—one of the most central literary issues— surfaced. The case has recently been made that Kant derived an important part of his philosophy from an encounter with some of John Milton’s lyrics, triggering effectively a revolution in the philosophy of mind.1
On May 21, King Harald V of Norway presented the Abel Prize of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters to Pierre Deligne, Professor Emeritus in the School of Mathematics. In his acceptance speech, published here, Deligne articulates the essential role of freedom and curiosity in research––as the source of most of the important applications of sciences and as a powerful incentive to do the best work possible. The Institute is deeply grateful to Deligne, who has donated a portion of his monetary prize to support curiosity-driven research in the Institute’s School of Mathematics. His gift will be matched by the Simons/Simonyi $100 million challenge grant, which is the basis of the $200 million Campaign for the Institute.
Your Majesty, Minister, Excellencies, colleagues, family, friends, and guests,
I am very honored that this Abel Prize associates me with the luminaries who received it before me, amongst whom are my teachers and mentors Jacques Tits and Jean-Pierre Serre.
The past century has been a golden century for mathematics. When I look back, I am amazed at all the questions that in my youth seemed inaccessible, but which have now been solved. The last half-century has also been a golden time for mathematicians, but I worry that the prospects for young people are now far from being as good.
Throughout my life, I have received crucial help from many people and institutions. This for me is an occasion to give thanks.
In early April 1972, Hugh Montgomery, who had been a Member in the School of Mathematics the previous year, stopped by the Institute to share a new result with Atle Selberg, a Professor in the School. The discussion between Montgomery and Selberg involved Montgomery’s work on the zeros of the Riemann zeta function, which is connected to the pattern of the prime numbers in number theory. Generations of mathematicians at the Institute and elsewhere have tried to prove the Riemann Hypothesis, which conjectures that the non-trivial zeros (those that are not easy to find) of the Riemann zeta function lie on the critical line with real part equal to 1⁄2.
Montgomery had found that the statistical distribution of the zeros on the critical line of the Riemann zeta function has a certain property, now called Montgomery’s pair correlation conjecture. He explained that the zeros tend to repel between neighboring levels. At teatime, Montgomery mentioned his result to Freeman Dyson, Professor in the School of Natural Sciences.
In the 1960s, Dyson had worked on random matrix theory, which was proposed by physicist Eugene Wigner in 1951 to describe nuclear physics. The quantum mechanics of a heavy nucleus is complex and poorly understood. Wigner made a bold conjecture that the statistics of the energy levels could be captured by random matrices. Because of Dyson’s work on random matrices, the distribution or the statistical behavior of the eigenvalues of these matrices has been understood since the 1960s.
By Patrick Geary
Few historical questions have so fascinated historians as the fall of the Roman Empire or, in the more fashionable modern parlance, its “transformation” into something altogether different, namely independent kingdoms ruled by successors of barbarian commanders in the West and a Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire in the East. For over two centuries, historians have particularly debated the role of barbarian invasions in this process, but in reality we have very little hard data on the nature of the barbarian “peoples” that entered the Western provinces between the fourth and sixth centuries, their numbers, their composition, or the reality of their influence on the indigenous populations of the Empire.
Were these large ethnic populations moving across Europe from Scandinavia to Italy and Spain, as nineteenth-century romantics imagined? Or were they small heterogeneous military units employed by the Empire that settled, with a minimum of force and disruption, within the administrative and fiscal mechanisms of a still-functioning Empire, as has been suggested more recently? Did these groups long maintain their distinctiveness from the local population, eschewing intermarriage and holding fast to their distinctive legal and cultural traditions, or did they rapidly integrate themselves into local elites through intermarriage and cultural transformation? Were they really distinct population groups at all or merely provincial Romans and local “barbarians” who united under ethnic labels and took advantage of opportunities to seize power from a beleaguered empire? Traditional sources with which to answer these questions—highly rhetorical accounts of the period often written centuries later, sparse administrative documents surviving in scattered fragments, and ambiguous archaeological material showing changing patterns of burial custom and settlements—simply do not provide enough evidence to reach a consensus.