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.

My Random Walks with Pólya and Szegő

Olga Holtz, Member (2014, 2009–10) in the School of Mathematics, discusses how reading books by mathematicians Pólya and Szegő shaped her career in mathematics.


By Lucy Colwell

How do proteins self-assemble into functional molecules?

Proteins are typically cited as the molecules that enable life; the word protein stems from the Greek proteois meaning “primary,” “in the lead,” or “standing in front.” Living systems are made up of a vast array of different proteins. There are around 50,000 different proteins encoded in the human genome, and in a single cell there may be as many as 20,000,000 copies of a single protein.1

Each protein provides a fas­cinating example of a self-organ­izing system. The molecule is assembled as a chain of amino acid building blocks, which are bonded together by peptide bonds to form a linear polymer. Once synthesized, this polymer spontaneously self-assembles into the correct and highly ordered three-dimensional structure required for function. This ability to self-assemble is remarkable—each linear polypeptide chain is highly disorganized, and has the potential to adopt an array of conformations so vast that we cannot enumerate them, yet within less than a second a typical protein spontaneously assumes the correct, highly ordered three-dimensional structure required for function. The identity and order of the amino acids that make up this polypeptide, that is the protein sequence, typically contain all the information necessary to specify the folded functional molecule.2


By Nicola Di Cosmo

Did an unusually favorable climate create conditions for a new political order under Chinggis Khan?

In his recent book Global Crisis: War, Climate Change & Catas­trophe in the Seventeenth Century, Geoffrey Parker states: “although climate change can and does produce human catastrophe, few historians include the weather in their analyses.” This is generally true, and the distance between historians and the weather may not have improved (indeed, may have been underscored) by the evolution of environmental history as a separate branch of historical research. Moreover, while the collection of historical climate data has never been more robust, instances of collaboration between scientists and historians are still very few and far between. In 2006, the National Science Foundation launched a program for research on Coupled Natural and Human Systems, capturing the need to model the interaction between societies and environments. Few of the projects funded so far, however, involve a long-term historical perspective or engage actual historical questions. One of these, funded last year, is titled “Pluvials, Droughts, Energetics, and the Mongol Empire” and is led by Neil Pederson, Amy Hessl, Nachin Baatarbileg, Kevin Anchukaitis, and myself.


By John Padgett

Do actors make relations or do relations make actors?

The encounter of historical and evolutionary perspectives within the intermediate trading zone of social science often has been unsatisfactory. Biological metaphors of social evolution were common among the original founders of the social sciences—in sociology and anthropology especially—but collectivist functionalism1 now is thoroughly discredited. Horrific misuses of biological and evolutionary “scientific theories” by nineteenth- and twentieth-century racist social movements need no recounting. More recently, sociobiology—the analysis of discrete social behaviors and cultural “memes” as if these were genes in evolutionary competition—has gained an enthusiastic following as a sect, but sociobiology is viewed as simplistic and naive by most contemporary social scientists. 

Less well known among social scientists, the reverse reception of historicist arguments in evolutionary biology also has been rocky. Stephen Jay Gould is widely known and praised outside of his own subfield, but his arguments are held at arm’s length if not in disdain by his evolutionist peers. Celebrating “historical contingencies” to them seems tantamount to giving up on scientific explanation altogether. Postmodernists in the social sciences and the humanities are willing to take that step, but contemporary evolutionary biologists (including the late Gould himself) have nightmares of creationists and intelligent designers exploiting indeterminacy in evolutionary theory for their own purposes.


By George Dyson

Ware’s contributions helped create the working architecture of the modern digital computer.

Willis Ware accepted a position with the Institute for Advanced Study’s Electronic Computer Project (ECP) on May 13, 1946, and began work on June 1. He was the fourth engineer hired to work on the project—and, at his death on November 22, 2013, was the last survivor of the original engineering team. The wor­king architecture of the modern digital com­pu­ter—gates, timers, shift registers, all the elements we take entirely for granted including how to implement an adder, not to mention random-access memory and the registers that keep track of it—has Willis Ware’s fingerprints all over it.

He and his friend and colleague James Pomerene were hired by chief engineer Julian Bigelow from Hazeltine Electronics in Little Neck, Long Island, where they had worked on IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) radar systems during World War II. IFF was an implementation, using analogue components, of high-speed digital coding, and was the opposite of encryption. Instead of trying to encode a message that was as difficult as possible to understand when intercepted, the goal of IFF was to transmit a code that would be as difficult as possible to misunderstand. The ability to reliably manipulate high-speed pulses of electrons that Ware and colleagues had developed for IFF was perhaps the greatest technical contribution that anyone brought to the problem of physically realizing, at megacycle speed, what John von Neumann had set out to do, in theory, in late 1945 and early 1946.