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 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 Elizabeth Bernstein
In recent years, the trafficking of women and children into the sex sector has become the focus of a steady spate of media coverage, the subject of abundant policy interventions, and the target of local, national, and transnational activist campaigns uniting highly diverse constituencies. From the political left to the far right, from secular feminists to evangelical Christians, sex trafficking is frequently described as “modern day slavery” and is considered to be a moral question that is “beyond politics,” something no one could possibly claim to be “for.” This unity is all the more striking given the fact that definitions of the term remain murky, with many states and activists applying it not only to forced but also to voluntary forms of sexual labor. Despite this ambiguity, sex trafficking has risen to a position of cultural and political prominence that it has not held since the “white slavery” panic similarly circled the globe at the turn of the last century.
This surge of interest presents sociologists and other scholars with some vexing social and historical questions. If prostitution is the “oldest profession,” why the resurgence of interest in it now? How has the issue of sex trafficking come to unite constituencies that otherwise have opposing politics and interests, especially in relation to matters of sex and gender (as ongoing political controversies over gay marriage and abortion powerfully reveal)?
By Eugene Kontorovich
My work uses the international response to piracy, both historical and contemporary, to assess the effectiveness of international criminal law and cooperation. Recent decades have witnessed the unprecedented growth of international criminal law and institutions. These developments are seen widely as signs of international law’s maturation: it now directly regulates individuals and is backed by criminal sanctions. Scholars and activists now imagine a future in which a cosmopolitan international law will break through national self-dealing to bring “an end to impunity” for atrocious crimes, fostering a world based on norms rather than power. On the other hand, some worry that internationalization will come at the expense of accountability and democracy, or simply dress geopolitical vendettas in legal robes.
The current debates about international justice remain mostly normative and theoretical. To the extent that they invoke precedent and evidence, they are drawn from the small universe of international criminal cases in the past two decades. It is evident that the modern international criminal justice system is not fully developed. The much vaunted International Criminal Court, for example, has only convicted one defendant. Its future efficacy and consequences cannot be assessed or predicted from its present embryonic state. Piracy provides a unique study in the progress and potential of international criminal law. For hundreds of years it has been a universal jurisdiction crime—one which any nation can prosecute, even with no connection to the offense. Indeed, the modern regime of international criminal justice was inspired by the legal treatment of piracy. Studying the legal treatment of piracy allows one to see what a fully matured system of universal justice would look like.
By W. Anthony Sheppard
When I arrived at the Institute last September, I thought I knew exactly what I would accomplish as a Member in the School of Historical Studies—I would complete my book, Extreme Exoticism: Japan in the American Musical Imagination, and would launch a new project on vocal timbre in twentieth-century music. By January, having made reasonable progress, these goals still appeared attainable. However, through a chance encounter with a nineteenth-century musical artifact, my carefully crafted research schedule was completely derailed. This opportune encounter led me to make a series of discoveries concerning two of Puccini’s operas and to develop insights into the global circulation of music over the past two centuries.
My wife and I had promised our children we would occasionally visit our home during the year. The distance between Pownal, Vermont, and Princeton, New Jersey, proved crucial to the direction my research would take. The drive is just long enough to invite stops at cultural and natural attractions in northern New Jersey. As graduate students at Princeton in the early 1990s, we had visited the Morris Museum in Morristown to view its collection of American art. I was aware that the museum had since dramatically expanded its holdings to include the Guinness Collection of mechanical musical instruments and automata, and so we decided to visit again last January. I soon discovered that scholarly serendipity may strike in surprising settings.
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.