Articles by IAS Faculty
by Didier Fassin
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
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
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 Freeman Dyson
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.
by Jonathan Haslam
A vantage point into the story of the present
Mikhail Gorbachev defied every expectation at home and abroad by permitting the Berlin Wall to be breached in November 1989. He had finally allowed the imbalance of military power in Europe, which had stood provocatively and overwhelmingly to Soviet advantage since 1945, to be broken unopposed. Behind all this lay a basic truth: Moscow had effectively already given up the ideological struggle. The Russia reborn in 1992 had to confront the unexpected need to substitute at short notice raw patriotism for a long-outmoded belief in a global ideal, all in the face of falling living standards and full consciousness—not least via MTV, now beamed freely into city apartments—of what the West could offer in return for betrayal.