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.
In the beginning of the twentieth century, the University of
Göttingen was one of the top research centers for mathematics in
the world. The mathematician David Hilbert was a well-established
professor there, and during the winter semester of 1924–25...
During a visit to the Institute in the 1970s, the mathematician
John Horton Conway, then of Cambridge, spent the ten most
interesting minutes of his life. Invited to deliver a talk to the
undergraduate math club at Princeton, Conway made his way...
In 1900, David Hilbert published a list of twenty-three open
questions in mathematics, ten of which he presented at the
International Congress of Mathematics in Paris that year. Hilbert
had a good nose for asking mathematical questions as the ones