Using Knowledge, Creativity, and Collaboration to Further Understanding

On November 14, the Institute for Advanced Study announced the appointment of Robbert Dijkgraaf as its ninth Director, succeeding, as of July 1, 2012, Peter Goddard, who has served as Director since January 2004.

Below, Dijkgraaf speaks about his enthusiasm for the Institute and for using knowledge, creativity, and collaboration to further our understanding of a world of diverse facts, structures, ideas, and cultures.


I am delighted to come to the Institute for Advanced Study, one of the intellectual centers of the world. The position of Director is highly distinguished, and the list of former Directors is quite intimidating. But I am particularly looking forward to combining at the highest level three elements that have been important in my professional life: the opportunity to collaborate with the very best scientists and scholars; to organize a stimulating environment for great talent from around the world; and to play an active role in science education, advocacy, and diplomacy to engage future generations.

Taking up my appointment as Director of the Institute will feel a bit like coming home. My family and I have only the best recollections of our stays in Princeton. I also expect that in many ways my life will become more focused. My present position as President of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences requires giving attention to many different areas, from elementary school programs to industrial affairs, from government policy to international relations. The Institute is remarkably effective as a place for concentration and inspiration.

As envisioned by the founders, the Institute has an absolutely unique place in the intellectual landscape. Not only does it bring academics of the highest level together, it is also a symbol across the world for the importance of undirected research. At the Institute, “it” can happen, although nobody will or can tell you in advance what “it” is. Unfortunately, places that allow such unrestricted academic freedom are becoming more rare, since so much emphasis today is on short-term returns. The Trustees must be complimented that they have kept this clear vision intact over the years.

The Institute is a magical place. But just like magic on the stage, this kind of magic requires a lot of effort behind the scenes! The Institute tries to create an atmosphere that inspires scholars to take their research to the next level. Former Director Robert Oppenheimer liked to use the word “inspiriting.” Of course, the list of great scholars associated with the Institute is remarkable, but this impressive history does not seem to weigh people down. Instead, the atmosphere focuses on the here and now. What are you thinking about right now? And how can you engage your colleagues in this adventure?

My first visit to the Institute was as a graduate student in 1988. I still remember driving at night along Olden Lane and seeing Fuld Hall fully lit from a distance. I felt like I was entering a new world, as if, in some way, I had to start all over again. That visit led to my first paper written with Edward Witten, on three-manifold invariants from finite groups. I subsequently came as a postdoc to Princeton University, but continued my collaboration with Witten and fellow Dutch graduate students Erik and Herman Verlinde, who were based at the Institute and the University, respectively. At that time, a sizeable fraction of the string theory community was concentrated in the Princeton area, so there was a tremendous sense of collective excitement. My own research during these years was directed at matrix models and black holes, two topics that I have continued working on ever since.

Looking back, the Institute years clearly set the course for my career, both in terms of research topics and contacts. This formative period also made me, as a physicist, appreciate the power and attractiveness of mathematics. I only fully realized how perfect the working circumstances were when I became a professor of mathematical physics at the University of Amsterdam and was confronted with days loaded with teaching classes, supervising students, and endless committee meetings.

My family and I visited the Institute again for a long stay in 2002. At that time, I really needed to revitalize my research. The work I did at the Institute laid the foundations for my subsequent work on matrix models and supersymmetric gauge theories with my long-time collaborator Cumrun Vafa of Harvard University. My children were very young at the time and mostly remember that we made a hedgehog from a snowball and twigs, which we kept for days in the freezer.

As a physicist, it is exciting to be a part of an international community of scientists who share their enthusiasm for finding out how the universe works. It is remarkable that physics allows you to capture deep physical principles in terms of elegant mathematics. Sometimes it seems as if we can have truth and beauty at the same time, as the Institute seal claims.

My first introduction to modern physics was an issue of Scientific American on quarks that I read in high school. However, the most exciting part of this article was not so much the physics, which might have been a bit over my head, but the fact that a single paper could be written by a team of scientists from various countries. I was amazed to see that elementary particles could bring people from different parts of the globe together.

Einstein pointed out that the most remarkable fact about the universe is that it can be understood at all. We have not yet met signs that read “forbidden for humans.” The challenge of making sense of the enormous diversity of facts, structures, ideas, and cultures around us motivates me every day. There will be progress in science, but where and how is always a surprise.

When I studied painting at the Rietveld Academy of Fine Arts, it reminded me how important and satisfying it is to produce original work, preferably every day. Research is the common denominator of art and science. However, as a scientist it is easier to add to the work of others. There is vicarious pleasure in seeing your colleagues obtain exciting results, since it triggers new thoughts and research projects. If science is a work of art, it is definitely a collective one. The artist on the other hand is fortunate that he or she can avoid the painful collision with reality that a scientist sometimes has to experience. Nature has her own ideas about what makes good science.

The word “scientist” is a comparatively late, nineteenth-century invention that sometimes unnecessarily complicates our life. The natural sciences and the humanities have much more in common than is often realized. Critical Renaissance scholarship of texts, especially religious ones, was crucial in starting the modern scientific revolution. In fact, in Dutch we use the convenient single word “wetenschap” to encompass the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. With my background in physics and mathematics, I look forward to building more bridges to the humanities and social sciences, as I have done at the Royal Netherlands Academy.

Sharing my own excitement and wonder has always been an important aspect of my research. Even as a young child, I could only really enjoy an experience—be it a book, movie, or holiday—if I could share it with my friends. It is a remarkable phenomenon that explaining your research, even to a general audience, can give you so many new ideas. I feel we should dedicate some of the creativity required in our research to exploring new ways of reaching out to the general public, in particular to younger generations. Only by capitalizing on all available talent, from all over the world, can we make sure that we reach the highest level of understanding. Of course, it would be wonderful to see some of that talent come to the Institute!


Robbert Dijkgraaf’s academic work has been on the mathematical physics of quantum fields and strings, and their interplay with gravity, geometry, and elementary particles. Among other things, Dijkgraaf’s work has greatly influenced our understanding of string theory in low dimensions, topological strings and their relations to invariants studied by geometers, the dynamics of supersymmetric gauge theories in the strongly coupled regime, and the use of methods of string theory and/or gauge theory to understand the quantum states of black holes. His widely cited works cover an extensive range of topics.

In a broad sense, a primary theme in Dijkgraaf’s work has been the recognition of ideas in pure geometry that can be usefully applied to mathematical physics, and vice-versa. For example, he has related quantum states of black holes to automorphic forms in unexpected ways. On other occasions, Dijkgraaf has found powerful applications of ideas in one area of mathematical physics that originated in another area. For instance, a recurrent theme in his work has been the use of models of random matrices, sometimes in connection with associated hierarchies of integrable differential equations, to gain new and often surprising information about a great variety of contemporary problems involving string theory and gauge theory. This particular theme well illustrates the relations of Dijkgraaf’s area of research to many other fields. Random matrices, which were introduced in physics over half a century ago by Eugene Wigner, with early contributions by John von Neumann, Herman Goldstine, and Freeman Dyson, among others, have numerous applications in mathematics, science, and engineering.

In sum, Robbert Dijkgraaf has made exciting contributions to many rapidly developing areas of contemporary mathematical physics.

—Edward Witten, Charles Simonyi Professor in the School of Natural Sciences

A former Member (1991–92) and Visitor (2002) in the School of Natural Sciences, Dijkgraaf will bring broad expertise to the role as a leading theoretical and mathematical physicist and a distinguished administrator and advocate for science and the arts. Currently President of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and Distinguished University Professor of Mathematical Physics at the University of Amsterdam, Dijkgraaf has recognized deep connections between physics and mathematics and has found powerful applications of ideas within mathematical physics that have furthered the development of string theory and quantum field theory.