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 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.


By John Padgett

Do actors make relations or do relations make actors?

The encounter of historical and evolutionary perspectives within the intermediate trading zone of social science often has been unsatisfactory. Biological metaphors of social evolution were common among the original founders of the social sciences—in sociology and anthropology especially—but collectivist functionalism1 now is thoroughly discredited. Horrific misuses of biological and evolutionary “scientific theories” by nineteenth- and twentieth-century racist social movements need no recounting. More recently, sociobiology—the analysis of discrete social behaviors and cultural “memes” as if these were genes in evolutionary competition—has gained an enthusiastic following as a sect, but sociobiology is viewed as simplistic and naive by most contemporary social scientists. 

Less well known among social scientists, the reverse reception of historicist arguments in evolutionary biology also has been rocky. Stephen Jay Gould is widely known and praised outside of his own subfield, but his arguments are held at arm’s length if not in disdain by his evolutionist peers. Celebrating “historical contingencies” to them seems tantamount to giving up on scientific explanation altogether. Postmodernists in the social sciences and the humanities are willing to take that step, but contemporary evolutionary biologists (including the late Gould himself) have nightmares of creationists and intelligent designers exploiting indeterminacy in evolutionary theory for their own purposes.


By George Dyson

Ware’s contributions helped create the working architecture of the modern digital computer.

Willis Ware accepted a position with the Institute for Advanced Study’s Electronic Computer Project (ECP) on May 13, 1946, and began work on June 1. He was the fourth engineer hired to work on the project—and, at his death on November 22, 2013, was the last survivor of the original engineering team. The wor­king architecture of the modern digital com­pu­ter—gates, timers, shift registers, all the elements we take entirely for granted including how to implement an adder, not to mention random-access memory and the registers that keep track of it—has Willis Ware’s fingerprints all over it.

He and his friend and colleague James Pomerene were hired by chief engineer Julian Bigelow from Hazeltine Electronics in Little Neck, Long Island, where they had worked on IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) radar systems during World War II. IFF was an implementation, using analogue components, of high-speed digital coding, and was the opposite of encryption. Instead of trying to encode a message that was as difficult as possible to understand when intercepted, the goal of IFF was to transmit a code that would be as difficult as possible to misunderstand. The ability to reliably manipulate high-speed pulses of electrons that Ware and colleagues had developed for IFF was perhaps the greatest technical contribution that anyone brought to the problem of physically realizing, at megacycle speed, what John von Neumann had set out to do, in theory, in late 1945 and early 1946.


By Jonathan Israel

A sixteenth-century painting of Charles IX in front of the Parliament of Paris on August 26,1572, attempting to justify the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre.

How freedom of the theater promised to be a major extension of liberty

Early on in the French Revolution, in his memoir on press freedom submitted to the Estates-General in June 1789, Jean-Pierre Brissot (1754–93), later a prominent revolutionary leader, proclaimed liberty of the press “un droit naturel à l’homme.” Loathed by Maximilien Robespierre, Brissot, together with his political allies, was later guillotined in October 1793 by the Montagne, the political faction that organized the Terror of 1793–94. During 1789 and throughout the period down to the coup that brought the Montagne to power in June 1793, no one publicized the demand for full freedom of expression more vigorously than Brissot. He also raised the issue of liberty from theater censorship, something which at that time existed nowhere in Europe, or indeed anywhere else, and never had. Theater freedom mattered more for renewing “liberty” than people think, he explained, since the theater exerts a great influence  “sur l’esprit public,” a point he would develop further, he adds, were not a writer of talent—the playwright Marie-Joseph Chénier (1762–1811)—already doing so. Among the Revolution’s principal champions of free expression, this literary ally of Brissot’s was the brother of the poet André Chénier who was guillotined by the Montagne in July 1794. 

By July 1789, the month of the storming of the Bastille, the question was no longer whether revolutionary France should possess freedom of expression and of the press—all the revolutionaries then agreed that it should—but rather whether this freedom required limits. Should there be “liberté illimité de la presse” without legal responsibility for calumny or inciting violence? This posed a dilemma for the national legislature, for aside from the principle itself, there was much uncertainty and anxiety about the unpredictable consequences. Many believed the campaign to bring “philosophy” and Enlightenment to the people would fail. Press freedom and the other new rights were justified in the people’s name, and yet, not one-hundredth part of the people actually read, warned the veteran republican writer and future deputy, Louis-Sébastien Mercier (1740–1814), while only one-thousandth part read with sufficient discernment and knowledge to separate truth from falsehood. The “ordinary man, being ignorant,” he admonished, judges politicians’ reputations by popular reputation rather than talent or knowledge—with predictably disastrous results.


By Andris Ambainis

The study of quantum information could lead to a better understanding of the principles common to all quantum systems.

When I was in middle school, I read a popular book about programming in BASIC (which was the most popular programming language for beginners at that time). But it was 1986, and we did not have computers at home or school yet. So, I could only write computer programs on paper, without being able to try them on an actual computer. Surprisingly, I am now doing something similar—I am studying how to solve problems on a quantum computer. We do not yet have a fully functional quantum computer. But I am trying to figure out what quantum computers will be able to do when we build them.

The story of quantum computers begins in 1981 with Richard Feynman, probably the most famous physicist of his time. At a conference on physics and computation at the Massachusetts Institute of Tech­nology, Feynman asked the question: “Can we simulate physics on a computer?”