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 Didier Fassin

The Summer Program brings together its participants for two-week sessions each summer for three years. (Credit: Andrea Kane)

Doing social science across different worlds

Let us imagine a conversation between a literary scholar from Palestine interested in the reception of Ibn Ruschd’s commentary on Aristotle, an anthropologist from Iraq examining the experience of exiles fleeing the war, an economist from the Ivory Coast assessing the impact of microfinance projects, a sociologist from Benin investigating gas smuggling across the border, a political scientist from Brazil analyzing clientelism in local elections, and a legal scholar from Chile studying anti-discrimination laws. This conversation did take place at the Institute for Advanced Study as part of the Summer Program in Social Science that was launched in September 2015. Other scholars involved in the program were conducting research on environmental conflicts in Buenos Aires, crack use in Rio de Janeiro, income inequality in Egypt, water shortage in rural Iran, corruption practices in the Cameroonian health system, debates over the age of sexual consent under South African law, and negotiations at the World Trade Organization—among other themes.


by Yve-Alain Bois

Spectrum I (1953) (Credit: Ellsworth Kelly/Editions Cahiers D'Art)

Cataloguing unexpected avenues of inquiry

Ellsworth Kelly likes to recall the incident in which a child, pointing at the five panels of Painting for a White Wall, enumerated their colors from
left to right and back. It was at this moment that the artist realized that what he had wanted to do in this painting was to “name” colors.

The idea that a juxtaposition of color rectangles was the visual equivalent of a suite of color names had two components, both related to an essential property of language, namely its infinite permutational capability. When the child enumerated the colors of Painting for a White Wall in both directions, he produced a permutation on what linguists call the syntagmatic level (in an enumeration, to take the example of the child’s utterance, the sequencing of the terms is of no grammatical consequence: “black, rose, orange, white, blue” is as correct grammatically as “blue, white, rose, orange, black”—or, for that matter, “blue, rose, black, orange, white,” or whatever word order). Investigating this aspect of the comparison between colors and linguistic units is what the artist set out to do in Red Yellow Blue White and Black, Red Yellow Blue White and Black II, and Red Yellow Blue White and Black with White Border.


by Scott Tremaine

Figure 1: A radio image of jets from the quasar Cygnus A. The bright spot at the center of the image is the quasar, which is located in a galaxy 240 megaparsecs away. The long, thin jets emanating from the quasar terminate in bright “hotspots” when they impact the intergalactic gas that surrounds the galaxy. The hotspots are roughly 70 kiloparsecs (or 228,000 light years) from the quasar. (Credit: National Radio Astronomy Observatory/R. Perley)

A cosmic detective story

Black holes are among the strangest predictions of Einstein’s general theory of relativity: regions of spacetime in which gravity is so strong that nothing—not even light—can escape. More precisely, a black hole is a singularity in spacetime surrounded by an event horizon, a surface that acts as a perfect one-way membrane: matter and radiation can enter the event horizon, but, once inside, can never escape. Remarkably, an isolated, uncharged black hole is completely characterized by only two parameters: its mass, and its spin or angular momentum.

Laboratory study of a macroscopic black hole is impossible with current or foreseeable technology, so the only way to test these predictions of Einstein’s theory is to find black holes in the heavens. Not surprisingly, isolated black holes are difficult to see. Not only are they black, they are also very small: a black hole with the mass of the Sun is only a few kilometers in diameter (this statement is deliberately vague: because black holes bend space, notions of “distance” close to a black hole are not unique). However, the prospects for detecting black holes in gas-rich environments are much better. The gas close to the black hole normally takes the form of a rotating disk, called an accretion disk: rather than falling directly into the black hole, the orbiting gas gradually spirals in toward the event horizon as its orbital energy is transformed into heat, which warms the gas until it glows. By the time the inward-spiraling gas disappears behind the event horizon a vast amount of radiation has been emitted from every kilogram of accreted gas.


by Robbert Dijkgraaf

Robbert Dijkgraaf (left), Director and Leon Levy Professor, Trustee Nancy Peretsman (center background), and Michael Bloomberg (right). (Credit: Bloomberg Philanthropies)

Going against the grain and swimming as far upstream as we can

Eighty-five years ago the founders of the Institute had a very clear vision: to create a place unique in the world, that would attract scholars of the highest quality from all over the world and provide them with the best environment to pursue their studies. The idea was to set those scholars free and imagine that with the right support they would do great things. With the Campaign for the Institute that we are now finishing, that mission has been reinforced in a powerful way. The fact that our message is resonating with all of you and that you are willing to support it, is to me the strongest evidence that we are still doing the right thing.


by Freeman Dyson

Credit: Dan Komoda

Christmas Day, 1942, was the three hundredth birthday of Isaac Newton. I was then an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge. Since Newton was our most famous fellow, the college organized a meeting to celebrate his birthday. Since it was war-time and very few fellows and students were in residence, the meeting was modest and the audience was small. We heard John Maynard Keynes, the famous economist who was then successfully keeping the British economy from collapse, give a talk with the title, “Newton, the Man.” Amid the intense pressures of his public duties, Keynes had found time to pursue his hobby of collecting and studying unpublished Newton m anuscripts. I have a vivid memory of the frail and white-faced Keynes, lying exhausted under a reading-lamp in the darkened college hall. He pulled out of the darkness his image of the genius of Newton. Keynes told us that the essence of Newton’s greatness was his ability to hold an intellectual problem in his mind with total concentration for months and years on end until he had solved it. Newton, he said, was gifted with muscles of intellectual concentration stronger than the muscles of anyone else.