IAS History

The Institute for Advanced Study came into being at the most inauspicious of times. Founded in the early years of the Great Depression, it took shape during the buildup to the Second World War and under the growing shadow of authoritarian regimes. Its first Director Abraham Flexner published his manifesto on the “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge” in October 1939, barely a month after the outbreak of hostilities in Europe. Surely this was a daunting moment to defend “the fearless and irresponsible thinker” and advocate for the free expression of knowledge and curiosity. 

By History Working Group

To Albert Einstein, she was “the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.” More straightforward in his praise, Einstein’s fellow Professor at the...

By History Working Group

In November 1954, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to a magazine in which he declared that, were he a young man again, he would not try to become a scientist: “I would rather choose to be a plumber or a peddler in...

On March 13, the Institute celebrated the publication of The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge (Princeton University Press), which features IAS Founding Director...

In 1916, social theorist Thorstein Veblen called for the post-war institution of “academic houses of refuge... where teachers and students of all nationalities, including Americans with the rest, may pursue their chosen work.” In 1923,...

"There's so much we don't know about the world. We don't actually understand how physics works. We don't actually understand how biology works. We are a little confused about math and computer science in terms of the things...

It is fundamental in our purpose, and our express desire, that in the appointments to the staff and faculty as well as in the admission of workers and students, no account shall be taken, directly or indirectly, of race, religion, or sex. We feel...

Edward Nelson, Member in the Schools of Mathematics (1956–59, 79–80) and Natural Sciences (1963–64, 67–68, 73–74) and Professor of Mathematics at Princeton University until his death in 2014, was an original thinker best known...

Dr. Robert J. Oppenheimer
Director of Above

Dear Sir,

First, please let me apologize for my manner of speaking when we discussed quantum theory recently. This manner is unjustifiably aggressive.

Thanks to the rabbit I pulled out of my hat on my returning from the museum the other evening, I’ve been able to get back on track. But today I’m filled with a strange mixture of optimism and dread. . . . the complexity of the mathematical landscape that’s now opened up makes my head spin if I think about it for more than a few moments.

I gave a copy of the preprint of my paper to Robert Oppenheimer, who, as Director of the Institute for Advanced Study, was my host. A week later I met him at an Eastern Physics Meeting at the University of Maryland, my home institution. When I asked him if he had read my paper, he replied, “Greenberg, it’s beautiful!” I was elated. After a pause, he completed his assessment of my paper by saying, “But I don’t believe a word of it!”

The following excerpt is from the article “Can We Survive Technology?” by John von Neumann, published by Fortune magazine in 1955. Von Neumann was among the Institute’s first Professors and its youngest. Having pioneered the modern computer, game theory, nuclear deterrence, and more, von Neumann illuminated the fields of pure and applied mathematics, computer science, physics, and economics.