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 Nigel Smith

For Bacon, literary creativity and scientific inventiveness both arise from the mental facility capable of finding truth. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London

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

Planck’s map of the cosmic microwave background, which depicts temperature variations of the light left over from the very early universe

The most detailed map of the infant universe to date was publicly released in March, showing relic radiation from the Big Bang, imprinted when the universe was just 380,000 years old. This was the first release of cosmological data from the Planck satellite, a mission of the European Space Agency that was initiated in 1996 and involved hundreds of scientists in over thirteen countries. In a lecture in May, Matias Zaldarriaga, Professor in the School of Natural Sciences, explained how theoretical models allowed the Planck team to determine the composition of the universe, map the seeds for the formation of structure, and confirm our broad understanding of the beginnings and evolution of the universe.

Our current understanding of the history of the universe began to take shape around the 1930s, after Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe was expanding. Since then, there have been great advances in understanding the composition of the universe and how it has evolved through cosmic history. According to the standard cosmology model, in the current phase in the history of the Big Bang, the universe began about fourteen billion years ago. Initially the universe was hot and dense with interacting particles. It has been conjectured that prior to this phase, the universe underwent a brief period of accelerated expansion known as inflation when quantum fluctuations, stretched to cosmologically large scales, became the seeds of the universe’s stars and galaxies.


By Venkataraman Bhaskar

This chart illustrates trends in marriage-market imbalances in selected countries. It graphs the excess of men per one hundred women in the birth cohort every five years, between 1955 and 2005, taking into account the actual sex ratio in the age group 0–4 and the required sex ratio implied by cohort growth and the age gap at marriage. It also takes into account differential mortality between the sexes.

Women’s rights have come a long way since the beginning of the twentieth century. Before that, if a European or American woman were married, her husband owned the wages she might earn and controlled any property or inheritance she might bring. Women have also made major strides in developing countries. In India or China today, their position is a far cry from the past, when they may have been confined to the house or have their feet bound. Nonetheless, there are some puzzling steps backward. In India, the practice of dowry—payments made by the parents of the bride to the groom—has spread to parts of the country where it was earlier unknown. Dowry payments have also increased, despite laws banning the practice. In sub-Saharan Africa, polygyny persists and is socially acceptable despite modernization—Jacob Zuma’s four wives did not hinder his ascent to the Presidency of South Africa. Why has the forward march of women been interrupted in these developing countries? Is this trend likely to persist, or will it be reversed?

On May 21, 2013, Pierre Deligne, Professor Emeritus in the School of Mathematics, was presented with the Abel Prize, awarded by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters "for seminal contributions to algebraic geometry and for their transformative impact on number theory, representation theory, and related fields."

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.


By Christer Bruun

Ostia’s port after its completion under the emperor Trajan (98–117 C.E.)

Besides Rome itself, there are principally two cities in Roman Italy that vie for the attention of both scholars and the public at large: Ostia and Pompeii. The latter is known for its tragic end in the volcanic eruption of 79 C.E., for fascinating wall paintings, and for millions of tourists who every year trample its sunbaked streets. Ostia suffers from relative neglect. Situated too close to the attractions of eternal Rome, the town draws many fewer visitors than its monuments and its overall importance would deserve, even though its green pine trees and the lush vegetation help make it into a peaceful historical oasis at the very mouth of the Tiber River.

From a historical perspective, Ostia was a more important settlement than Pompeii. With a population of perhaps as many as fifty thousand inhabitants, the town was much larger than its “rival.” More significantly, while Pompeii’s history was cut short when Rome’s imperial period was only in its infancy, Ostia, which was first settled in the fourth century B.C.E., still thrived during the third century C.E., and we have historical sources that allow us to follow its development well into the 400s.