IAS History

Explore the rich history of the Institute for Advanced Study through firsthand accounts from its Faculty and visiting researchers.

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. 

We felt like we were in uncharted territory: no mathematicians we knew had ever received grants of this magnitude before. Normally, mathematicians receive relatively small individual grants from the National Science Foundation. This sounded a bit scary . . .  We turned to the Institute for Advanced Study as the place to foster innovation. As they say, the rest is history.

On January 4, 1955, Edward R. Murrow visited the Institute for Advanced Study to interview J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Institute’s third Director. 

Freedom is a powerful incentive to do the best we can. As I can attest from examples in my own work, it sometimes leads to dead ends, but that is a small price to pay.

In many different ways, 1953 was an exciting year. In February–March, at the Cavendish Lab in Cambridge, England, James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA molecules and its double-helix geometry. This discovery was announced...

The radical nature of Flexner’s twinning of science and humanism with truth and beauty arose in part from the radical nature of his concept for a ‘modern’ university by which he meant a university devoted exclusively to the pursuit of higher learning for its own sake and without regard to practical value.

By Dan Burt

A sign and eight low buildings pass
unnoticed in a field the size of Central
Park: a wall-flower by a college town.
Wandering its halls, one chair offices,
bare egg white walls, nothing stands out until
I...

In the two years I spent at the Institute, 1957–59, I had the opportunity of meeting two of the founders of the quantum theory—Niels Bohr and Paul Dirac. In the case of Bohr, perhaps “meeting” overstates the case. He was a Mem­ber in the spring...