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.

Slide from Nima Arkani-Hamed’s lecture, “The Inevitability of Physical Laws: Why the Higgs Has to Exist.”

Following the discovery in July of a Higgs-like boson—an effort that took more than fifty years of experimental work and more than 10,000 scientists and engineers working on the Large Hadron Collider—Juan Maldacena and Nima Arkani-Hamed, two Professors in the School of Natural Sciences, gave separate public lectures on the symmetry and simplicity of the laws of physics, and why the discovery of the Higgs was inevitable.

Peter Higgs, who predicted the existence of the particle, gave one of his first seminars on the topic at the Institute in 1966, at the invitation of Freeman Dyson. “The discovery attests to the enormous importance of fundamental, deep ideas, the substantial length of time these ideas can take to come to fruition, and the enormous impact they have on the world,” said Robbert Dijkgraaf, Director and Leon Levy Professor.

In their lectures “The Symmetry and Simplicity of the Laws of Nature and the Higgs Boson” and “The Inevitability of Physical Laws:
Why the Higgs Has to Exist,” Maldacena and Arkani-Hamed described the theoretical ideas that were developed in the 1960s and 70s, leading to our current understanding of the Standard Model of particle physics and the recent discovery of the Higgs-like boson. Arkani-Hamed framed the hunt for the Higgs as a detective story with an inevitable ending. Maldacena compared our understanding of nature to the fairytale Beauty and the Beast.

“What we know already is incredibly rigid. The laws are very rigid within the structure we have, and they are very fragile to monkeying with the structure,” said Arkani-Hamed. “Often in physics and mathematics, people will talk about beauty. Things that are beautiful, ideas that are beautiful, theoretical structures that are beautiful, have this feeling of inevitability, and this flip side of rigidity and fragility about them.”


By Freeman Dyson

Freeman Dyson was awarded the 2012 Henri Poincaré Prize at the International Mathematical Physics Congress in August. On this occasion, he delivered the lecture “Is a Graviton Detectable?” a PDF of which is available at

John Brockman, founder and proprietor of the Edge website, asks a question every New Year and invites the public to answer it. THE EDGE QUESTION 2012 was, “What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful
explanation?” He got 150 answers that are published in a book,
This Explains Everything (Harper Collins, 2013). Here is my contribution.

The situation that I am trying to explain is the existence side by side of two apparently incompatible pictures of the universe. One is the classical picture of our world as a collection of things and facts that we can see and feel, dominated by universal gravitation. The other is the quantum picture of atoms and radiation that behave in an unpredictable fashion, dominated by probabilities and uncertainties. Both pictures appear to be true, but the relationship between them is a mystery.

The orthodox view among physicists is that we must find a unified theory that includes both pictures as special cases. The unified theory must include a quantum theory of gravitation, so that particles called gravitons must exist, combining the properties of gravitation with quantum uncertainties.


By Angelos Chaniotis

From left: Nathanael Andrade, Angelos Chaniotis, Oliver Stone, Gary Leva, and Yannis Hamilakis discuss historiography in the context of cinema. Photo by Bentley Drezer

The study of cinematic representations of ancient history is one of the most rapidly rising fields of classical scholarship. As an important part of the modern reception of classical antiquity, movies inspired by Greek and Roman myth and history are discussed in academic courses, conferences, textbooks, handbooks, and doctoral theses. Such discussions involve more than a quest for mistakes—a sometimes quite entertaining enterprise. They confront classicists and ancient historians with profound questions concerning their profession: What part does the remote past play in our lives? How do modern treatments of the past reflect contemporary questions and anxieties? How is memory of the past continually constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed?

My father worked in the movie industry in the 1950s and 60s as a producer and leaseholder of one of Greece’s largest movie theaters. This may have been the impetus for me to become a cinephile. However, my fascination with the representation of history on the big screen is part of my interest in how memory is shaped. Many Members of the School of Historical Studies, past and present, share this interest. Adele Reinhartz (Member, 2011–12) is the author of Scripture on the Silver Screen (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003) and Jesus of Hollywood (Oxford University Press, 2007); among current Members, the archaeologist Yannis Hamilakis studies the place of the past in modern Mediterranean societies and their media; the ancient historian Nathanael Andrade incorporates movies into undergraduate teaching; and the historian of Latin America Jeff Gould directs historical documentaries.


By Uta Nitschke-Joseph

In June 2012, an early work by Erwin Panofsky (1892–1968) was found in an armored cabinet in the basement of the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte in Munich. The study, “Die Gestaltungsprincipien Michelangelos, Besonders in ihrem Verhältnis zu denen Raffaels” (“Michelangelo’s Principles of Style, Especially in Relation to Those of Raphael”), fills a gap within the extensive list of publications of one of the most eminent art historians of the twentieth century.

In June 2012, an early work by Erwin Panofsky (1892–1968) was found in an armored cabinet in the basement of the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte in Munich. The study, “Die Gestaltungsprincipien Michelangelos, Besonders in ihrem Verhältnis zu denen Raffaels” (“Michelangelo’s Principles of Style, Especially in Relation to Those of Raphael”), fills a gap within the extensive list of publications of one of the most eminent art historians of the twentieth century.

Many knew about it, many looked for it, but no one was able to find it. Assumed lost in the bombing of Hamburg during World War II, Panofsky’s manuscript on Michelangelo, written at the end of the second decade of the twentieth century, had become a legend, a mystery that, as the years went by, was less and less likely to be solved. Not even the correct title had been preserved. All that was known was that during the late spring of 1920, Panofsky’s study had been accepted as his Habilitation thesis by the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Hamburg, and after the required additional examination, Panofsky had received the venia legendi. Then the manuscript vanished, until now, when it reappeared in the most unlikely place, a safe in the basement of what used to be the administration building of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party in Munich. What had happened? This account attempts to reconstruct the history of the manuscript based on information gathered from publications like the Erwin Panofsky Korrespondenz 1910–1968 (ed. Dieter Wuttke, 5 vols. [Wiesbaden, 2001–11]), Horst Bredekamp’s article “Ex nihilo: Panofsky’s Habilitation” (in Erwin Panofsky: Beiträge des Symposions Hamburg 1992, ed. Bruno Reudenbach [Berlin, 1994], 31–51), and recent newspaper articles as well as critical details provided by Gerda Panofsky, Erwin’s second wife and widow, and Stephan Klingen from the Zentralinstitut.


By D. Kotschick

Friedrich Hirzebruch’s 1954 paper (shown here), which announced the proof of what we now call the Hirzebruch- Riemann-Roch theorem, was written while he was a Member at the Institute. Hirzebruch’s work at IAS in 1953 has had a profound influence on mathematics, and even on theoretical physics, over the last sixty years.

In many different ways, 1953 was an exciting year. In February–March, at the Cavendish Lab in Cambridge, England, James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA molecules and its double-helix geometry. This discovery was announced in Nature in April and hit the news during the second half of May. Several newspaper articles in the English and American press at the time celebrated the work of Watson and Crick as closing in on the secret of life. This enthusiasm was vindicated by later developments, so that the publication of Watson and Crick’s paper1 is now regarded as one of the most important scientific events of the twentieth century.

At the same time, a British expedition was on the slopes of Mount Everest attempting the first climb to the top of the highest mountain on earth, which had, until then, defeated all challengers. The expedition set up base camp in March and then worked its way up the mountain. After a failed summit attempt by a different pair of climbers, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay finally conquered Mount Everest on May 29, 1953. News of their success reached the Western world on June 2 and was a front-page story. It so happened that June 2 was also Coronation Day in England, when Queen Elizabeth II was crowned after having ascended to the throne upon the death the previous year of her father, King George VI. The New York Times called the news of Hillary and Tenzing’s exploit a "coronation gift."

In that spring of 1953, Friedrich Hirzebruch was hard at work at the Institute in Princeton. He had arrived from Germany the previous summer for what would become a two-year stay and had immediately immersed himself in learning sheaf theory, algebraic geometry, and characteristic classes under the guidance of Kunihiko Kodaira and Don Spencer of Princeton University. By the spring of 1953, Hirzebruch was trying to solve what he thought of as the Riemann-Roch problem: to formulate and prove a far-reaching generalization of the nineteenth-century Riemann-Roch theorem, extending it from algebraic curves to algebraic varieties of arbitrary dimensions. The setting was sheaf cohomology and the goal was to find a formula for certain Euler characteristics in sheaf cohomology in terms of Chern classes.