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 Edward Frenkel

How a conference at IAS began a new theory bridging the Langlands program in mathematics to quantum physics

The Institute for Advanced Study has played an important role in my academic life. I have fond memories of my first visit in 1992, when, a starstruck kid, I was invited by Gerd Faltings and Pierre Deligne to talk about my Ph.D. thesis, which I had just completed. In 1997, I spent a whole semester at the IAS during a special year on quantum field theory for mathematicians. I returned to the IAS on multiple occasions in 2007 to collaborate with Edward Witten, and then in 2008–09 to work with Robert Langlands and Ngô Bao Châu.

Perhaps one of the most memorable visits was the one that happened exactly ten years ago, in March of 2004. It is described below in the (slightly abridged) excerpt from my book Love and Math. A few months earlier,  Kari Vilonen, Mark Goresky, Dennis Gaitsgory, and I were chosen to receive a multimillion dollar grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to work on a project aimed at establishing links between the Langlands program and dualities in quantum field theory. We felt like we were in uncharted territory: no mathematicians we knew had ever received grants of this magnitude before. Normally, mathematicians receive relatively small individual grants from the National Science Foundation. Here we were given a lot of resources to coordinate the work of dozens of mathematicians with the goal of making a concerted effort in a vast area of research. This sounded a bit scary, but the idea of surpassing the traditional, conservative scheme of funding mathematical research with a large injection of funds into a promising area was really exciting, so we could not say no. We turned to the Institute for Advanced Study as the place to foster innovation. As they say, the rest is history.

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By Ralph Kaufmann

To be fully grasped, mathematical ideas have to be rediscovered or reimagined, much like in the translation of poetry.

Mathematical language is becoming more and more pervasive. This phenomenon ranges from the mundane (imprints on T-shirts or mugs) to the more scientific (its use in reporting or in disciplines outside of mathematics) and even includes art in its span. This begs the question, why and how does it work? Or more poignantly: What is the form and function of mathematical language inside and outside its community of speakers?

In the field of mathematics itself, the situation is not as homogenous as one might think. How much truth is contained in a proof by pictures is quite different in algebra versus geometry, and, historically, there is great variation in what is considered a proof—mainly how stylized the language should be. Being too relaxed can lead to foundational crises and questions like those Helmut Hofer is working out in symplectic geometry. An extreme position, which I call Frege’s dream, is also alive today with Vladimir Voevodsky and his colleagues through their endeavors to formalize language as much as possible to maximize verifiability. Some might argue that Bourbaki represented a golden age for striking a balance between the formal, the communal, and the communicable. 

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By Edyta Bojanowska

Writer Ivan Goncharov published a detailed account of his travels on the Pallada (depicted here in an 1854 Nagasaki print) in a two-volume literary travelogue, The Frigate Pallada (1855–57). The goal of the government-funded Pallada expedition was to establish trade relations with Japan. Goncharov’s cultural  documentation of the expedition reflects a particular imperial mentality that found broad resonance among contemporary Russian readers.
Writer Ivan Goncharov published a detailed account of his travels on the Pallada (depicted here in an 1854 Nagasaki print) in a two-volume literary travelogue, The Frigate Pallada (1855–57). The goal of the government-funded Pallada expedition was to establish trade relations with Japan. Goncharov’s cultural documentation of the expedition reflects a particular imperial mentality that found broad resonance among contemporary Russian readers.

A Russian writer tours the colonial world.

Multiethnic empire? Colonialism? These aren’t topics that we associate with Russian literature. And yet, a sprawling, expansionist, multiethnic empire was a determining factor of Russian history since at least the mid-sixteenth century. 

Hundreds of ethnic groups found themselves within Russia’s borders, making ethnic Russians, in the census of 1897, a minority in their own empire. Among modern times, the Russian empire rivaled the British one in size, and at various points included Finland, the Baltics, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, the Caucasus region, Central Asia, Siberia, the Far East, and Alaska. To this day, as a result of this process, the Russian Federation remains territorially the largest country on earth.

In recent decades, the history of Russia’s imperial expansion and management has come into greater focus. But this empire’s cultural self-image remains elusive. What were the cultural echoes of this process? With what images and ideas did Russian literary classics dress up (or dress down) the empire? What are the Russian equivalents of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India or Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness?

Contrary to its popular image, Russian literature has long grappled with questions of multiethnicity, colonization, and imperial expansion. Such issues predominated not only in Russian popular culture, but also evoked diverse engagements from all major Russian writers of the tsarist era, running the full gamut from propagandistic to anti-colonial. These writers include such major figures as Pushkin, Lermontov, Dostoevsky, Leskov, Chekhov, and Tolstoy. Sometimes, the imperial themes of their well-known works have been ignored. At other times, the texts that engage these themes, though popular in their own time, have been sidelined in the process of canonization—especially as commandeered by the Soviet authorities, which by and large sought to minimize both tsarist and Soviet imperialisms or to portray them as strictly benevolent. 

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By Didier Fassin

Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected president of South Africa
Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected president of South Africa

Mandela reinstated the rights of those who were oppressed and restored their dignity without perpetuating resentment or inciting retaliation.

On the eve of South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, few observers thought that the day would pass without bloodshed. A smooth transition toward democracy seemed very unlikely. Having been in a state of emergency from 1985 to 1990, the country had suffered from years of civil war­–like conditions. In the early 1990s, the police force of the apartheid regime, white suprem­acists, and secessionist Zulus had massacred members of the African National Congress. The charismatic General Secretary of the Communist Party, Chris Hani, had been the recent victim of an assassination ordered by a member of the Conservative Party. And during ANC meetings the crowd would sing the combative chant “Kill the Boer.” Thus, it was an unlikely transition, even more so because South African President Frederik de Klerk was accused of supporting the Inkatha Freedom Party of Mangosuthu Buthelezi, which was implicated in the violent outbreaks.

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By Michael J. Cohen

Extracts from Churchill’s Cabinet memo, warning against implementing the Land clauses of the 1939 White Paper. Christmas Day, 1939.
Extracts from Churchill’s Cabinet memo, warning against implementing the Land clauses of the 1939 White Paper. Christmas Day, 1939.

How the first Arab-Israeli war became inevitable

The British Mandate in Palestine may be divided roughly into four distinct periods.

1. 1915–1920: In February 1915, a small Turkish force, led by German officers, managed to cross the Sinai desert and reach the Suez Canal, the imperial artery to the “jewel in the (British) Crown”—India. This shattered Britain’s previous strategic conception that no modern army could attack the canal from the North, and led her to move her defense line north, to Palestine. In November 1917, the British issued the Balfour Declaration, which offered to help the Zionists establish a Jewish national home in Palestine—provided that nothing was done to “prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

At one of the most critical junctures of the war, the Declaration served many purposes, not the least of which was as a propaganda tool: it harnessed for Britain the alleged, all-powerful influence of international Jewry (the cabinet feared that the Germans were about to preempt them with a Declaration of their own). It also served British military and strategic interests. Britain’s Zionist proxies enabled the government to demand Palestine solely for itself (thereby finessing the French out of Palestine, as had been agreed in the Sykes-Picot share-out of May 1916). President Wilson was persuaded by prominent American Zionists to agree to the Declaration, in effect, to a British occupation of Palestine, even if still under Turkish rule.

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