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.

From the Summer 2015 Issue

by Michael Hanchard

Protesting in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown in 2014 (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The multiple dimensions of state-sanctioned violence against black and brown youth

I first met Emery Robinson at Albert Leonard Junior High School in New Rochelle, New York. He was two grades behind me, a seventh grader when I was in the ninth grade. He was known as a manchild, not only in terms of size, because he was much bigger than most ninth graders even then, but because he had the physicality and presence of a young man. He could have easily passed for seventeen or eighteen years old when, by my recollection, he could not have been much more than eleven or twelve.

His face, however, betrayed his youth; cherubic, at times shy, an easy laugh and mischievous smile, he was what one would refer to as “not a bad kid,” to indicate someone who was a bit mischievous but not malicious. Because of his size he made the basketball team, though it did not seem as if he had a great interest in basketball. He gravitated to kids who were a little older, bolder, and who occasionally got into trouble, petty theft, but no violence to my knowledge. In my hometown, junior high school was a pivotal point in the lives of many poor and not so poor, black, brown, and working class kids from many diverse backgrounds.

From the Summer 2015 Issue
John Nash, reading in the Fuld Hall Common Room (2011)

On May 19, 2015, King Harald V of Norway presented the Abel Prize from the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters to John Forbes Nash, Jr., Member (1956–57, 1961–62, 1963–64) in the School of Mathematics, and long-time member of the Princeton University Department of Mathematics, for his contributions to the theory of nonlinear partial differential equations, which are used to describe the basic laws of phenomena in physics, chemistry, biology, and other sciences. Returning to Princeton from the prize ceremony in Oslo, Nash and his wife Alicia died together in an automobile accident. “I hope one thing will become clear when we look back on Dr. John Nash’s life,” observed Robbert Dijkgraaf, Director of the Institute and Leon Levy Professor. “There are many brilliant minds, but he was a very special kind. . . . He was always going in directions that were either thought to be impossible, or actively discouraged.”


From the Summer 2015 Issue

by Richard Ashby Wilson and Christine Lillie

Ali al-Bahlul waves a sign, "Boycott," printed in Arabic and English, during his arraignment for war crimes related to his work as al-Qaeda media secretary. (Sketch Pool/The Miami Herald)

Over the last ten years, national and international courts have prosecuted a greater number of political leaders and their propagandists who incite others to commit acts of war, terrorism, and genocide. The United States government, a self-avowed promoter of freedom of speech, has pursued al-Qaeda propagandists such as Ali al-Bahlul and Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, and in 2014 a federal court sentenced Ghaith to life in prison for what his defense attorney called “just talk.” The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has convicted eight defendants, including radio broadcasters and a Rwandan pop star, of direct and public incitement to commit genocide. Combatting election propaganda is a priority of the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, who warned in advance of the recent Nigerian elections that “any person who incites or engages in acts of violence by ordering, requesting, encouraging, or contributing in any other manner to the commission of crimes … is liable to prosecution either by Nigerian courts or by ICC.” 

Intuitively, we may feel that leaders and media figures who incite genocide and crimes against humanity should bear criminal responsibility. Yet there does not exist any conclusive body of social science evidence demonstrating that extreme speech directly influences attitudes and behavior. Anthropologists and political scientists interviewed hundreds of convicted perpetrators of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and they reported that peer pressure from male neighbors and kin influenced their decisions to participate in genocide more than government and radio propaganda. Of course, listeners are not always consciously aware of their motivations, and quantitative approaches have yielded divergent findings that identify the harmful effects of hate speech. Economist David Yanagizawa-Drott used an econometric analysis of prosecution rates and radio coverage and found that approximately ten percent of the participation in the Rwandan genocide can be attributed to radio broadcasts, corresponding to an estimated 50,000 murders.

From the Summer 2015 Issue

by Angelos Chaniotis

The New York University excavations, under Kenan Erim (1961–90) and Bert Smith (from 1991 onwards), have made Aphrodisias one of the most important archaeological sites in Asia Minor.

During Augustus’s reign (late first century B.C.E.), the philosopher Athenodoros returned from Rome to his hometown Tarsos, in southwest Turkey. When he found the city dominated by the poet and demagogue Boethos, he used the authority given to him by Augustus to send Boethos and his followers into exile. Thereupon, Boethos’s partisans

wrote against him on the walls: “Deeds are for the young, counsels for the middle-aged, but farts for the old men.”

When Athenodoros took the inscription as a joke, he ordered to add “thunders for old men.” But then someone, who despised all decency and had a loose belly, came in the night to his house and profusely bespattered the door and the wall. When Athenodoros brought accusations in the assembly against that faction, he said: “One may recognize the city’s illness and disaffection in many ways, and in particular from its excrement.”

This incident, narrated by the geographer Strabo,1 is one of the few references of ancient authors to graffiti. Another one is found in the Courtesans’ Dialogues composed by the satirist Lucian in the second half of the second century C.E. Two prostitutes, Drosis (“fresh as dew”) and Chelidonion (“the little sparrow”), discuss possible strategies against the philosopher Aristainetos, who was preventing Drosis’s lover, Kleinias, from visiting her. Chelidonion volunteers to help in a slander campaign: “I think that I will write on the wall in Kerameikos ‘Aristainetos is corrupting Kleinias.’” When Drosis wonders how Chelidonion can do this without being seen, her friend responds: “By night, Drosis, taking charcoal from somewhere.”

From the Summer 2015 Issue
Clockwise from left: Nima Arkani-Hamed, Chen Hesheng, Nobel Laureate David Gross, and Yifang Wang at the inauguration of the Center for Future High Energy Physics in Beijing on December 17, 2013. (Center for Future High Energy Physics)

Three years ago, just before it was scheduled to shut down in preparation for its second phase, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) discovered the Higgs boson. Its discovery was expected, having been predicted nearly sixty years earlier by Peter Higgs, but the LHC-produced particle is bizarre and puzzling.

“There are all sorts of issues, theoretical issues surrounding the Higgs, which are very mysterious,” says Nima Arkani-Hamed, Professor in the School of Natural Sciences. “The Higgs is the first truly new kind of elementary particle that we have discovered in four decades, and it is really a strange object.” Point-like with no properties aside from a mass of 125 gigaelectronvolts (GeV), the Higgs particle does not have any charge or spin. It is also the only known particle with the ability to interact with itself.

Faced with such a compelling cliffhanger, Arkani-Hamed headed to China. “I thought the most effective thing I could do to push this part of physics forward is to try to make sure that the next machine happens,” says Arkani-Hamed. “I thought I could usefully engage a large pool of talent among young people who are experts in how all of these colliders work, who also were looking for something to do in the gap period between when the LHC shut off and turned on again.”