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.

David Spergel at an IAS Astrophysics colloquium lunch in 2014

The theoretical astrophysicist and Princeton University professor is well known for his work on NASA’s 2001 Microwave Anisotropy Probe—he conceptualized the mission and deciphered the radio telescope’s data to measure the age of the universe, the shape of the universe, and the abundance of ordinary matter, dark matter, and dark energyA 2001 MacArthur fellow and fall 2014 Visitor and former Member (1985–88) in the School of Natural Sciences, Spergel received the 2015 Dannie Heineman Prize for Astrophysics with Marc Kamionkowski for their investigation of the fluctuations of the cosmic microwave background, work they did when Kamionkowski was a Member (1991–95) in the School of Mathematics. 

What makes you curious? I think that we are all curious. I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to have the time to explore some of the questions that have fascinated me.


by Anver M. Emon

A scene from Not Without My Daughter, in which the mother plots to smuggle her daughter out of Iran. Muslim-majority countries, with few exceptions, have consistently refused to ratify the international Abduction Convention of the Hague Conference, which would require them to violate their understanding of Islamic legal requirements on child custody.

How can private international law reconcile differences between not only two parties, but two legal systems?

In the 1991 film Not Without My Daughter, Sally Field plays an American woman who has a daughter with her Iranian-born husband. When the family visits Iran, Field’s character learns that the husband plans to stay in Iran with their daughter. To escape Iran with her daughter, Field’s character must dupe her increasingly abusive husband, and hire a smuggler to help her and her daughter escape to Turkey. In the backdrop of the dramatic escape is an Iranian legal system premised on national laws of citizenship and Islamic legal doctrines on child custody and guard­ianship. That legal background informs a broad research question I am exploring while in residence at the Institute for Advanced Study concerning the relationship between Islamic law and international law. The issue of international child abduction offers a useful case study to put the stakes of this question into stark relief. 

International child abduction is a particular phenomenon that implicitly reflects the complex implications of a globalized economic environment. Generally, this form of ab­duc­­tion occurs in the context of marital breakdown, where one parent has dual nationality. For the sake of illustration, suppose the following example. Joseph and Maria meet in college and fall in love. Joseph is originally from Pakistan, but has dual citizenship. Maria was born and raised in New Hampshire, and now lives there with Joseph and their two children. After a few years, Joseph and Maria’s marriage begins to fall apart and they divorce. A court grants Maria full custody of their two children, while awarding Joseph visitation rights. Joseph is particularly upset about the custodial arrangement. One day, when the children are visiting him, Joseph goes to the airport where he and the children board an airplane to Pakistan, leaving Maria behind. Distraught, Maria contacts a lawyer to find out her legal options and how to get her children back. 


By Laurence Ralph

Kehinde Wiley, The Chancellor Seguier on Horseback (2005), oil on canvas, 108 x 144 in.

The following text is excerpted from Renegade Dreams: Living Through Injury in Gangland Chicago (University of Chicago Press, 2014). Written by Laurence Ralph while a Member (2012–13) in the School of Social Science, the book combines African American studies, the scholarship on disability, and the field of critical medical anthropology to show how injury plays a central, though underexamined, role in the daily lives of poor urban blacks. Ralph is Assistant Professor in the departments of African and African American Studies and Anthropology at Harvard University.

Anyone hoping to find quick references to Chicago’s notorious gangs and infamous neighborhoods in this ethnography will be disappointed—as will anyone skimming the pages to find glossy snapshots of gang members. What is real about this ethnography—what hasn’t been altered or rendered anonymous—are the events that I describe and the voices of my collaborators. Their voices bring to life the activities that take place on Chicago’s street corners. Their voices bring dimension to people’s identities and life struggles. Their voices paint a portrait of the variegated desires that stem from imagining life anew.

It’s fitting in this regard that the painting that begins this book—Kehinde Wiley’s work The Chancellor Seguier on Horseback (2005)—accurately captures the spirit of what it means to have a renegade dream. Wiley, a critically acclaimed portrait painter, is renowned for his heroic portraits that capture the status of young urban blacks in contemporary culture through reference to Old Master paintings. Adapted from a seventeenth-century Charles Le Brun painting Chancellor Séguier at the Entry of Louis XIV into Paris in 1660, Wiley’s rendition blurs the boundaries between traditional and contemporary modes of representation by restaging the figures, and thus creating a fusion of period styles. Dressed in modern army fatigues and sweatpants, bandannas and baseball caps, T-shirts with airbrushed rappers and Air Force One sneakers, the figures in Wiley’s composition are beautifully anachronistic. Yet the genius in Wiley’s work is that it leads us to question: Why can’t urban African Americans assume the delicate harmony and militant posture reminiscent of a Renaissance master? This book seeks to similarly restage urban blacks within societal institu­tions and fields of power from which they are often presumed to be excluded. Despite the statistical odds against their dreams coming to fruition in such a context, I foreground the resilience it takes for black Chicagoans to keep dreaming anyway.


By Cédric Villani

Cédric Villani in the Institute woods in 2009 (Photo: Claire Calmet)

Five months at IAS, two-hundred-fifty pages, and a Fields Medal

Cédric Villani, Member in the School of Mathematics in the spring of 2009 and currently Professor at Université Lyon I and Director of the Institut Henri Poincaré, has called his stay at the Institute one of his most productive periods, during which more than 250 pages were written. In his Member report to then-Director Peter Goddard at the end of his stay, Villani wrote of his collaboration with Clément Mouhot from Paris, “Writing up the paper on Landau damping was one of the most intense experiences of my professional life: for three months in a row, we kept unlocking seemingly untractable obstacles on a weekly basis. Our 180-page-long paper solves a fifty-year-old open problem.” A year after his IAS visit, Villani was awarded the 2010 Fields Medal, in part for the work that he did at the Institute on his proof of nonlinear Landau damping. Following are excerpts from Birth of a Theorem, translated by Malcom DeBevoise (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), originally published in 2012 as Théorème Vivant (Éditions Grasset & Fasquelle), which describe his fervent, halting, and very human experience in trying to obtain the proof.


Princeton, January 1, 2009

Finally, the Institute for Advanced Study—the IAS, as everyone calls it—comes into view. A little like a castle rising up in the middle of a forest. We had to go around a large golf course in order to find it. . . .

It is here that Einstein spent the last twenty years of his life. True, by the time he came to America he was no longer the dashing young man who had revolutionized physics in 1905. Nevertheless, his influence on this place was deep and long-lasting, more so even than that of John von Neumann, Kurt Gödel, Hermann Weyl, Robert Oppenheimer, Ernst Kantorowicz, or John Nash—great thinkers all, whose very names send a shiver down the spine.



By Suzannah Clark

How a lone theorist’s pursuit of symmetry shaped music history

On the second Sunday after Trinity in 1724, the congregation at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig heard Johann Sebastian Bach’s new cantata that began with the words Ach Gott. Bach set the word Gott to the most dissonant triad known at the time: the augmented triad. Bach’s own son, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, wrote in the second volume of his treatise of 1762 that the offending augmented fifth of this harmony requires careful preparation. His father did not prepare it at all. Acclimatized as we are today to all kinds of dissonances, this harmony might pass the modern listener by. But it would have disconcerted the ears of the eighteenth-century congregation, giving them a God-fearing shudder, while setting the scene for the biblical message of the day. Bach, after all, was setting the tune and words, Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein, that Martin Luther had penned exactly two hundred years earlier, in 1524. Based on Psalm 12, Luther tells of a perilous world filled with those who shun God.

The augmented triad has long been a headache for music theorists, only partially on the basis of its harsh sound. Mostly they are perturbed by its construction and their inability to pinpoint a convincing origin for it. It would be no exaggeration to say that, just two years before Bach composed his cantata, the harmonic theory of Jean-Philippe Rameau, a towering figure in the history of music theory, brought about a paradigm shift in how chords were categorized and understood to have been constructed. Although much of Rameau’s theory still holds sway today, a now defunct aspect of his Traité de l’harmonie led him to deem the augmented triad “worthless.” It belonged to the rubbish heap of potential chords because it did not contain the right kind of fifth, and therefore it must be an incomplete chord. According to Rameau’s newly minted theory, all valid, complete chords must contain a perfect fifth; the augmented triad gets its name from the fact that its fifth is “augmented” (it is a semitone larger than the perfect fifth).