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.

This image taken of the total solar eclipse of May 29, 1919, was among Albert Einstein’s possessions when he died in 1955, then ­Professor Emeritus in the School of Mathematics. The image, taken by astro­nomer Arthur Eddington and now in the collection of the Institute’s Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives Center, provided striking evidence of Einstein’s general theory of relativity ­because of the way starlight was shown to curve around the mass of the Sun. (Credit: Institute for Advanced Study)

An exploration of its continuing impact across physics, cosmology, and mathematics

Albert Einstein finished his general theory of relativity in November 1915, and in the hundred years since, its influence has been profound, dramatically influencing the direction of physics, cosmology, and mathematics. The theory upended Isaac Newton’s model of gravitation as a force of attraction between two masses and instead proposed that gravity is felt as a result of the warping by matter of the universe’s four-dimensional spacetime. His field equations of gravitation explained how matter curves spacetime, how this curvature tells matter how to move, and it gave scientists the mathematical tools to understand how space would evolve in time, leading to a deeper understanding of the universe’s early conditions and development.

“The general theory of relativity is based on profound and elegant principles that connect the physics of motion and mass to the geometry of space and time,” said Robbert Dijkgraaf, Director of the Institute and Leon Levy Professor, who gave a lecture “100 Years of Relativity” in October, sponsored by the Friends of the Institute. “With Einstein’s equations, even the universe itself became an object of study. Only now, after a century of calculations and observations, the full power of this theory has become visible, from black holes and gravitational lenses to the practical use of GPS devices.”

To celebrate the centennial of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, the Institute held a special two-day conference November 5–6, cohosted with Princeton University and made possible with major support from IAS Trustee Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Alphabet Inc., and his wife Wendy. The conference, General Relativity at 100, examined the history and influence of relativity and its continuing impact on cutting-edge research, from cosmology and quantum gravity, to black holes and mathematical relativity.


by Kristen Rogheh Ghodsee

Albert Einstein, Rabbi Stephen Wise, and novelist Thomas Mann at the previous of the anti-war film The Fight for Peace in 1938 (Credit: Herbert McCory/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images)

A lifelong struggle for peace amid militarism, Nazi mobilization, and the threat of nuclear war

Wolfram Wette is one of Germany’s foremost military historians and Professor at the Albert-Ludwigs-Universität in Freiburg. He is the author or editor of over forty books, including The Wehrmacht: History, Myth, Reality (Harvard University Press, 2007), which was translated into five languages and radically reshaped the way historians think about the role of the German army in World War II. In 2015, the German government awarded Wette the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, the only federal honor bestowed upon German citizens for their exceptional accomplishments. In July, Wette sat down with me to talk about Albert Einstein’s little-known activism in the German peace movement.

Most people know Albert Einstein for his theory of relativity of 1905, but they don’t know about his lifelong struggle for peace. But when you speak with some of the people who knew him, they will tell you that half of his life’s energy was dedicated to the struggle for peace and the other half to his atomic research. In 2005, there was an international congress in Berlin celebrating the centenary of the theory of relativity: “Thinking Beyond Einstein.” A good portion of the papers presented there focused on his role as a peace activist during the time of the Weimar Republic between 1918 and 1933.


by Jonathan Haslam

In October, Jonathan Haslam gave an Institute lecture, which asked: "What is Putin up to and why?" (Credit: Dan Komoda)

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.


by Lucas Bessire

An ethnographic account of the seeming destruction of a small group of South American Indians

This ethnographic project and I have grown up together. It evolved through repeated returns over the course of forty-two months of fieldwork carried out in Bolivia and Paraguay between 2001 and 2013. Its focus has sharply changed since I began traveling to the Chaco as a twenty-one-year-old. From the outset, I was an active participant in representing Ayoreo humanity to fellow outsiders, most notably in two documentary films. Yet I soon came to feel that there was something profane about anthropology as commonly practiced in the Chaco. And Ayoreo-speaking people wouldn’t let me forget it. Unsettled by the process of making my second video during the aftermath of a 2004 “contact,” I resolved that a collaborative project was the only option for the immersive research that I began in 2006 among Totobiegosode—Ayoreo in northern Paraguay.


by Geoffrey Allan Khan

A Christian Aramaic speaker in Georgia talks with Geoffrey Khan. (Credit: The Times of Israel/Miriam Shaviv)

While buying vegetables in the market one day, I heard the owner of the stall speaking a language that turned out to be a dialect of Aramaic. This whetted my appetite and I subsequently arranged to meet an elderly man who spoke Aramaic in his small apartment in the area of Jerusalem known as Qatamon. This meeting turned out to be a life-changing experience for me. I realized on that day that I was sitting in front of one of the last surviving speakers of a dialect of Aramaic. Aramaic was one of the major languages of the ancient Near East. Since the Middle Ages it has largely been replaced by Arabic, but it survived as a spoken language in a number of Jewish communities in the mountainous regions of northern Iraq, south-eastern Turkey, and western Iran down to modern times. Spoken Aramaic also survived to modern times among Christian communities in the same regions and also in a few villages in Syria. Over one hundred dialects of Aramaic were spoken in the Middle East in the first half of the twentieth century. The Jews adopted Aramaic when they were exiled to Mesopotamia in antiquity by the Babylonians, and some remained there. What I was hearing that day were the surviving cadences of the language of the ancient Jewish exile.