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The Most Successful Route Often Begins with a Short Step to the Side

By Robbert Dijkgraaf Published 2012

Andrea Kane

I am honored and heartened to have joined the Institute for Advanced Study this summer as its ninth Director. The warmness of the welcome that my family and I have felt has surpassed our highest expectations. The Institute certainly has mastered the art of induction.

The start of my Directorship has been highly fortuitous. On July 4, I popped champagne during a 3 a.m. party to celebrate the LHC’s discovery of a particle that looks very much like the Higgs boson—the final element of the Standard Model, to which Institute Faculty and Members have contributed many of the theoretical foundations. I also became the first Leon Levy Professor at the Institute due to the great generosity of the Leon Levy Foundation, founded by Trustee Shelby White and her late husband Leon Levy, which has endowed the Directorship. Additionally, four of our Professors in the School of Natural SciencesNima Arkani-Hamed, Juan Maldacena, Nathan Seiberg, and Edward Witten—were awarded the inaugural Fundamental Physics Prize of the Milner Foundation for their path-breaking contributions to fundamental physics. And that was just the first month.

Nearly a century ago, Abraham Flexner, the founding Director of the Institute, introduced the essay “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.” It was a passionate defense of the value of the freely roaming, creative spirit, and a sharp denunciation of American universities at the time, which Flexner considered to have become large-scale education factories that placed too much emphasis on the practical side of knowledge. Columbia University, for example, offered courses on “practical poultry raising.” Flexner was convinced that the less researchers needed to concern themselves with direct applications, the more they could ultimately contribute to the good of society.

Looking back, we can only be impressed with the clarity of Flexner’s vision. All the ingredients he thought necessary to foster a creative atmosphere have gained in relevance: the need for true academic freedom; an institution of relative small size; an integrated academic community; flexibility in research and organization; and a light hand in administration. Of course, many of these principles are widely shared inside and outside the academic world, but the Institute is in a unique, privileged position where it can act according to these fundamental values and embody them in a world often pressed into uncomfortable compromises.

Flexner had thoroughly researched his position and articulated it carefully, always aware that reality can bite back. Yet, even he was astonished that the Institute worked as he had envisaged. When the first five Faculty members arrived, he wrote to the Trustees that “they are as happy as birds, doing precisely the things which they have wanted to do.”

It is remarkable that Flexner’s idea of concentra­ting on “useless know­ledge” —the deep ideas behind interesting questions—has proven so effective. The biggest techno­logical and social changes originate in conceptual breakthroughs. In 1930, only a few theoretical physicists cared about quantum mechanics; now it is estimated that 50 percent of industry is based on it.

Finding answers to difficult questions is far from straight­forward. The shortest route from A to B is a straight line, but what do you do if you don’t know where B is located or what it looks like? History shows that the most successful route often begins with a short step to the side, often in a light spirit. When I speak with young researchers about their dreams and frustrations, my advice to them is always to keep an open mind. Give chance a chance. Color outside the lines. Surprise yourself.

Nobel Prize­–winner Frank Wilczek, a former Professor in the School of Natural Sciences, was a twenty-one-year-old student when he discovered how quarks are held together in a nuclear particle. When he was recently asked to sum up his philosophy of life in three words, his apt reply was “Think, Play, Repeat.” It is indeed an endless cycle of imagination and concentration, of divergence and convergence, of playing and thinking that deter­mines the rhythm of science and scholarship. The Institute is devoted to creating and sup­porting these experiences and the resulting, often surprising, advancements in knowledge.

In fact, the greatest challenge to the Institute is to embody the same qualities we would like to encourage in our Faculty and Members: be flexible (“plastic,” Flexner would say), open, and imaginative. Just as life as a scholar or scientist at the Institute might be described as being devoid of excuses, there are also no excuses for the Institute and its Director. We must pursue new directions and ways of academic research and strengthen the Institute’s important message to the world, as relevant now as it was in Flexner’s days. As the Red Queen said to Alice in Through the Looking-Glass: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. . . .”

Recommended Viewing: A video of a recent talk at IAS by Robbert Dijkgraaf is available at http://video.ias.edu/dijkgraaf-lecture-10-12.

Robbert Dijkgraaf is Director and Leon Levy Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study.

Published in The Institute Letter Fall 2012