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.

Nima Arkani-Hamed (left), Professor in the School of Natural Sciences and a member of the Faculty Music Committee, describes Derek Bermel (right), whose four-year term as Artist-in-Residence ended in June, as a grand unifier, a fellow wanderer, and a continued inspiration.

Derek Bermel, the Institute’s Artist-in-Residence since 2009, organized the Edward T. Cone Concert Series as well as dozens of conversations with poets, writers, composers, and musicians during his appoint­ment, which ended in June. These included perform­ances in Wolfensohn Hall by violinist Midori, pianist Jeremy Denk, inventive groups like eighth blackbird and the Borromeo String Quartet, as well as a reading by Broadway actors of his musical Golden Motors. He created a new series of Writers Conversations that probed the nature of creativity and collaboration with artists, poets, directors, and writers, including Steve Bodow, producer and writer for the Daily Show, poet Tracy K. Smith shortly before she won the Pulitzer Prize, and composer Stephen Sondheim who called art “a kind of puzzle.”

While at the Institute, Bermel collaborated with Helmut Hofer, Professor in the School of Mathematics, on a musical piece inspired by symplectic dy­namics, a mathematical theory of dynamical systems. In Feb­ruary, the JACK Quartet performed Derek’s clarinet quintet “A Short History of the Universe (as related by Nima Arkani-Hamed),” inspired by lectures he attended by Arkani-Hamed, Professor in the School of Natural Sciences.


What was your approach when you first started as the Institute’s Artist-in-Residence?

I’d say my approach has been fairly consistent. I’ve always been interested to make contact with people here. I only wish that I could have gone to more lectures, seen more presentations, participated even more. The Institute is a very rich place. There’s quite a bit below the surface, and it was clear to me right from the beginning that the Faculty and Members here were all working on fascinating projects; some of them I could only grasp skeletally, nonetheless it was well worth the effort.


By Catherine Rottenberg

Children of the Hagar School and their families plant a community garden. The students learn to work as partners, using an array of skills.

Although I came to the Institute to research twentieth-century African-American and Jewish-American fiction, I would actually like to share with you a formative experience I have had as a parent. It all began in 2005, when my oldest child was turning one. My partner and I were living in Be’er-Sheva, a city in southern Israel, and, like many new parents, we began to worry about our child’s education. So one evening we invited a few friends, Jewish and Palestinian couples with young children, to our home to discuss daycare and school options for our toddlers. Like many parents around the world, we scouted the city to see what kinds of nurseries and kindergartens were available. The reality we found was depressing, since it was a reality of strict segregation between Arab and Jewish children.

Except for a handful of mixed cities like Haifa (which are also segregated by neighborhood), the 1,180 settlements in Israel are ethnically divided: they are either Jewish or Arab. This means that even though twenty percent of Israel’s population is Arab, Jewish and Arab children rarely if ever get to know each other as they grow up. They go to separate schools, play in different neighborhood playgrounds, and really don’t have an opportunity to meet one other until, perhaps, university. This segregation is not a result of legislation. There are no Jim Crow laws prohibiting Jews and Palestinians from learning together. Rather, the lack of contact has to do with, among other things, the way space has been organized.


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.

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.