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.”
The proof of the fundamental lemma by Bao Châu Ngô that was confirmed last fall is based on the work of many mathematicians associated with the Institute for Advanced Study over the past thirty years. The fundamental lemma, a technical device that links automorphic representations of different groups, was formulated by Robert Langlands, Professor Emeritus in the School of Mathematics, and came out of a set of overarching and interconnected conjectures that link number theory and representation theory, collectively known as the Langlands program. The proof of the fundamental lemma, which resisted all attempts for nearly three decades, firmly establishes many theorems that had assumed it and paves the way for progress in understanding underlying mathematical structures and possible connections to physics.
The simplest case of the fundamental lemma counts points with alternating signs at various distances from the center of a certain tree-like structure. As depicted in the above image by former Member Bill Casselman, it counts 1, 1–3=–2, 1–3+6=4, 1–3+6–12=–8, etc. But this case is deceptively simple, and Ngô’s final proof required a huge range of sophisticated mathematical tools.
The story of the fundamental lemma, its proof, and the deep insights it provides into diverse fields from number theory and algebraic geometry to theoretical physics is a striking example of how mathematicians work at the Institute and demonstrates a belief in the unity of mathematics that extends back to Hermann Weyl, one of the first Professors at the Institute. This interdisciplinary tradition has changed the course of the subject, leading to profound discoveries in many different mathematical fields, and forms the basis of the School’s interaction with the School of Natural Sciences, which has led to the use of ideas from physics, such as gauge fields and strings, in solving problems in geometry and topology and the use of ideas from algebraic and differential geometry in theoretical physics.
By Jeremy Bernstein
In the two years I spent at the Institute, 1957–59, I had the opportunity of meeting two of the founders of the quantum theory—Niels Bohr and Paul Dirac. In the case of Bohr, perhaps “meeting” overstates the case. He was a Member in the spring of 1958 and Oppenheimer, who had known him since the 1920s and who had a feeling of adulation for him, decided that a fitting thing to do was to have a sort of seminar in which the physicists would trot out their wares with Bohr looking on and possibly commenting. As it happened, I had had a brief collaboration with T. D. Lee and C. N. Yang, who had won the Nobel Prize that fall. They had better things to tell Bohr than our modest work, so I was the designated spokesman. I was given ten minutes and took about three. After which Bohr commented, “Very interesting,” which meant he did not think so. If he had had any real interest, he would have engaged in a Socratic dialogue, which would have proceeded until he was satisfied. There is a famous story concerning Erwin Schrödinger—with whom I later spent an afternoon in Vienna—arriving in Copenhagen after having created his version of the quantum theory. Bohr disagreed with some of what Schrödinger was saying and pursued him into his bedroom where the now sick Schrödinger had taken refuge.
On a visit to the Institute ten years earlier, Bohr had written his wonderful account of his discussions with Einstein about the theory. Bohr found writing incredibly difficult and always had an amanuensis who acted as a sounding board. In this case, it was Abraham Pais who told the following story. Einstein had given Bohr his office for the visit and was in the adjoining smaller office of his assistant. Where the assistant had gone is not recorded. Bohr was facing away from the door and saying, “Einstein, Einstein” several times. As if summoned by a genie, Einstein stealthy came into the office. Before Bohr could turn around, Einstein helped himself to some of Bohr’s pipe tobacco. When Bohr did turn around, Einstein explained that his doctor had ordered him not to “buy” any more tobacco, but there was no injunction against his “stealing” some.
On November 14, the Institute for Advanced Study announced the appointment of Robbert Dijkgraaf as its ninth Director, succeeding, as of July 1, 2012, Peter Goddard, who has served as Director since January 2004.
Below, Dijkgraaf speaks about his enthusiasm for the Institute and for using knowledge, creativity, and collaboration to further our understanding of a world of diverse facts, structures, ideas, and cultures.
I am delighted to come to the Institute for Advanced Study, one of the intellectual centers of the world. The position of Director is highly distinguished, and the list of former Directors is quite intimidating. But I am particularly looking forward to combining at the highest level three elements that have been important in my professional life: the opportunity to collaborate with the very best scientists and scholars; to organize a stimulating environment for great talent from around the world; and to play an active role in science education, advocacy, and diplomacy to engage future generations.
Taking up my appointment as Director of the Institute will feel a bit like coming home. My family and I have only the best recollections of our stays in Princeton. I also expect that in many ways my life will become more focused. My present position as President of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences requires giving attention to many different areas, from elementary school programs to industrial affairs, from government policy to international relations. The Institute is remarkably effective as a place for concentration and inspiration.
By Juan Maldacena
The ancients thought that space and time were preexisting entities on which motion happens. Of course, this is also our naive intuition. According to Einstein’s theory of general relativity, we know that this is not true. Space and time are dynamical objects whose shape is modified by the bodies that move in it. The ordinary force of gravity is due to this deformation of spacetime. Spacetime is a physical entity that affects the motion of particles and, in turn, is affected by the motion of the same particles. For example, the Earth deforms spacetime in such a way that clocks at different altitudes run at different rates. For the Earth, this is a very small (but measurable) effect. For a very massive and very compact object the deformation (or warping) of spacetime can have a big effect. For example, on the surface of a neutron star a clock runs slower, at 70 percent of the speed of a clock far away.
In fact, you can have an object that is so massive that time comes to a complete standstill. These are black holes. General relativity predicts that an object that is very massive and sufficiently compact will collapse into a black hole. A black hole is such a surprising prediction of general relativity that it took many years to be properly recognized as a prediction. Einstein himself thought it was not a true prediction, but a mathematical oversimplification. We now know that they are clear predictions of the theory. Furthermore, there are some objects in the sky that are probably black holes.
Black holes are big holes in spacetime. They have a surface that is called a “horizon.” It is a surface that marks a point of no return. A person who crosses it will never be able to come back out. However, he will not feel anything special when he crosses the horizon. Only a while later will he feel very uncomfortable when he is crushed into a “singularity,” a region with very high gravitational fields. The horizon is what makes black holes “black”; nothing can escape from the horizon, not even light. Fortunately, if you stay outside the horizon, nothing bad happens to you. The singularity remains hidden behind the horizon.
By Edward Witten
In everyday life, a string—such as a shoelace—is usually used to secure something or hold it in place. When we tie a knot, the purpose is to help the string do its job. All too often, we run into a complicated and tangled mess of string, but ordinarily this happens by mistake.
The term “knot” as it is used by mathematicians is abstracted from this experience just a little bit. A knot in the mathematical sense is a possibly tangled loop, freely floating in ordinary space. Thus, mathematicians study the tangle itself. A typical knot in the mathematical sense is shown in Figure 1. Hopefully, this picture reminds us of something we know from everyday life. It can be quite hard to make sense of a tangled piece of string—to decide whether it can be untangled and if so how. It is equally hard to decide if two tangles are equivalent.
Such questions might not sound like mathematics, if one is accustomed to thinking that mathematics is about adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing. But actually, in the twentieth century, mathematicians developed a rather deep theory of knots, with surprising ways to answer questions like whether a given tangle can be untangled.
But why—apart from the fact that the topic is fun—am I writing about this as a physicist? Even though knots are things that can exist in ordinary three-dimensional space, as a physicist I am only interested in them because of something surprising that was discovered in the last three decades.