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.

Robbert Dijkgraaf will become the ninth Director of the Institute, as of July 1, 2012.

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.

A former Member (1991–92) and Visitor (2002) in the School of Natural Sciences, Dijkgraaf will bring broad expertise to the role as a leading theoretical and mathematical physicist and a distinguished administrator and advocate for science and the arts. Currently President of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and Distinguished University Professor of Mathematical Physics at the University of Amsterdam, Dijkgraaf has recognized deep connections between physics and mathematics and has found powerful applications of ideas within mathematical physics that have furthered the development of string theory and quantum field theory.

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 Didier Fassin

The Good Samaritan, Rembrandt van Rijn

Philosophers have always been interested in moral questions, but social scientists have generally been more reluctant to discuss morals and moralities. This is indeed a paradox since the questioning of the moral dimension of human life and social action was consubstantial to the founding of their disciplines.

A clue to this paradox resides in the tension between the descriptive and prescriptive vocations of social sciences: is the expected result of a study of moralities a better understanding of social life, or is the ultimate goal of a science of morals the betterment of society? At the be­ginning of the twentieth century, the German sociologist Max Weber, following the first line, pleaded for a value-free study of value-judgment, examining, for instance, the role played by the Protestant ethic in the emerging spirit of capitalism. His French contemporary Emile Durkheim, more sensitive to the second option, strongly believed that research on morality would not be worth the labor it necessitates were scientists to remain resigned spectators of moral reality, a position that did not prevent him from proposing a rigorous explanation of why we obey collective rules. This dialectic between exploring norms and promoting them, between analyzing what is considered to be good and asserting what is good, has thus been at the heart of the social sciences ever since their birth.

For anthropology, the problem was even more crucial, since the confrontation with other cultures, and therefore other moralities, led to an endless discussion between universalism and relativism. Given the variety of norms and values across the globe and their transformation over time, should one affirm that some are superior or accept that they are all merely in­­com­­­men­surable? Most anthropologists, from the American father of culturalism, Franz Boas, to the French founder of structuralism, Claude Lévi-Strauss, adopted the second approach, certainly reinforced by the discovery of the historical catastrophes engendered by ideologies based on human hierarchy, whether they served to justify extermination in the case of Nazism, exploitation for colonialism, or segregation with apartheid. This debate was recently reopened with issues such as female circumcision (renamed genital mutilation) and traditional matrimonial strategies (requalified as forced marriages), with many feminists arguing in favor of morally engaged research when it came to practices they viewed as unacceptable.


By Juliette Kennedy

The continuum hypothesis was under discussion as an "undecidable statement" at the Princeton University Bicentennial Conference on "Problems of Mathematics" in 1946, the first major international gathering of mathematicians after World War II. Kurt Gödel is in the second row, fifth from left.

In 1900, David Hilbert published a list of twenty-three open questions in mathematics, ten of which he presented at the International Congress of Mathematics in Paris that year. Hilbert had a good nose for asking mathematical questions as the ones on his list went on to lead very interesting mathematical lives. Many have been solved, but some have not been, and seem to be quite difficult. In both cases, some very deep mathematics has been developed along the way. The so-called Riemann hypothesis, for example, has withstood the attack of generations of mathematicians ever since 1900 (or earlier). But the effort to solve it has led to some beautiful mathematics. Hilbert’s fifth problem turned out to assert something that couldn’t be true, though with fine tuning the “right” question—that is, the question Hilbert should have asked—was both formulated and solved. There is certainly an art to asking a good question in mathematics.

The problem known as the continuum hypothesis has had perhaps the strangest fate of all. The very first problem on the list, it is simple to state: how many points on a line are there? Strangely enough, this simple question turns out to be deeply intertwined with most of the interesting open problems in set theory, a field of mathematics with a very general focus, so general that all other mathematics can be seen as part of it, a kind of foundation on which the house of mathematics rests. Most objects in mathematics are infinite, and set theory is indeed just a theory of the infinite.


By Glen W. Bowersock

The negus Kaleb celebrated his campaign in Arabia with an inscription set up in Axum. The text is in classical Ethiopic but written in South Arabian script (right to left). Note the cross at the left end of the first line.

In these turbulent times in the Middle East, I have found myself working on the rise and fall of a late antique Jewish kingdom along the Red Sea in the Arabian peninsula. Friends and colleagues alike have reacted with amazement and disbelief when I have told them about the history I have been looking at. In the southwestern part of Arabia, known in antiquity as Himyar and corresponding today approximately with Yemen, the local population converted to Judaism at some point in the late fourth century, and by about 425 a Jewish kingdom had already taken shape. For just over a century after that, its kings ruled, with one brief interruption, over a religious state that was explicitly dedicated to the observance of Judaism and the persecu­tion of its Christ­ian population. The record sur­vived over many centuries in Arabic historical writings, as well as in Greek and Syriac accounts of martyred Christians, but incredulous scholars had long been inclined to see little more than a local monotheism overlaid with language and features borrowed from Jews who had settled in the area. It is only within recent decades that enough inscribed stones have turned up to prove definitively the veracity of these surprising accounts. We can now say that an entire nation of ethnic Arabs in southwestern Arabia had converted to Judaism and imposed it as the state religion.

This bizarre but militant kingdom in Himyar was eventually overthrown by an invasion of forces from Christian Ethiopia, across the Red Sea. They set sail from East Africa, where they were joined by reinforcements from the Christian emperor in Constantinople. In the territory of Himyar, they engaged and destroyed the armies of the Jewish king and finally brought an end to what was arguably the most improbable, yet portentous, upheaval in the history of pre-Islamic Arabia. Few scholars, apart from specialists in ancient South Arabia or early Christian Ethiopia, have been aware of these events. A vigorous team led by Christian Julien Robin in Paris has pioneered research on the Jewish kingdom in Himyar, and one of the Institute’s former Members, Andrei Korotayev, a Russian scholar who has worked in Yemen and was at the Institute in 2003–04, has also contributed to recovering this lost chapter of late antique Middle Eastern history.


By Jeremy Bernstein

Debates at the fifth Solvay Conference in Brussels in 1927 helped shape the modern interpretation of quantum mechanics. Participants included Niels Bohr (second row, far right) and Albert Einstein (first row, fifth from left).

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.