Ideas

Explore firsthand accounts of research and questions posed by IAS scientists and scholars. From art history to string theory, from moral anthropology to the long-term fate of the universe, contributions span the last decade to the research of today.

This event celebrates the work and life of Emmy Noether, one of the first Visitors at the Institute from 1933–35. A highly prolific mathematician who published groundbreaking papers in...

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...

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...

My earliest mathematical memories involve my father. One is of a walk from home to the edge of downtown Metuchen (the tiny central Jersey town where I grew up), to a little luncheonette called The Corner Confectionary. This wasn’t a frequent or...

Does beauty exist in mathematics? The question concerns mathematical objects and their relations, the real subject of verifiable proofs. Mathematicians generally agree that beauty does exist in the structural beauty of theorems and proofs, even...

Richard Schwartz, Member (2003–04) in the School of Mathematics and the Chancellor’s Professor of Mathematics at Brown University, discusses really large numbers, as well as the different sizes of infinity and the different forms of infinite space. 

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.

Topology is the branch of geometry that deals with large-scale features of shapes. One cliché is that a topologist cannot distinguish a doughnut from a coffee cup: if a coffee cup were made of rubber, one could continuously deform it to a...

The Rubik’s Cube is one of the most popular toys in history. It is also an example of a permutation puzzle, which have existed in mathematics in one form or another for at least 140 years. In hindsight, it is strange that the cube ever became so...

Claudia Perlich

As Chief Scientist at Dstillery, Claudia Perlich works to collect about 10 billion user events daily, representing the digital and geo-physical journeys of millions of people on desktops, tablets, and mobile phones. In this lecture, Perlich explores a number of challenges including privacy-preserving representations, robust high-dimensional modeling, large-scale automated learning systems, transfer learning, and fraud detection.

Red Hangover: Legacies of Twentieth-Century Communism

By Kristen Rogheh Ghodsee

How much violence and human misery has been justified in the name of promoting democracy?

Albert Hirschman on Trespassing

Albert Hirschman, Professor in the School of Social Science, in a 1993 interview with Carmine Donzelli

A World of Prisons: An Ethnography of the Carceral Condition

By Didier Fassin

In the United States, the number of people incarcerated increased more than sevenfold in four decades, reaching the impressive figure of 2.3 million inmates in the early 2010s, which made the country’s incarceration rate the highest in the world, yet without provoking a major debate.

We Have to Go Beyond Identifying and Punishing Individual Men

By Joan Wallach Scott

As controversy swirls in the wake of the revelations about the abuses of women by powerful men . . . come to light, it is important to remember that we are dealing not with exceptional cases, but—as #MeToo demonstrates—with an enduring culture of masculinity.

How Could Machines Learn as Efficiently as Animals and Humans?

By Yann LeCun

There has been a bit of a revolution in the last few years in what we now call artificial intelligence. . . . Although we haven’t yet figured out how the brain learns, we have been able to reproduce some aspects of it. 

The Beginnings of Authoritarian Culture in the Arab World

By Kevin W Martin

The genealogy of modern personality cults is more complex and varied than conventionally assumed. The personal histories and interests of al-Shishakli’s advisers and cult architects suggest a source of inspiration remote from the practices of Socialist regimes. All of the available evidence indicates that the cult was informed, at least in part, by the practices of American business and political culture.

For a Different History of the Seventh Century C.E.

By Muriel Debie

An arcane topic to most people, Syriac sources help shed a more complex light on the history of the Middle East from late antiquity to the Middle Ages. They reveal a non-imperial epoch and its rich contributions to the cultural and religious history of the region.

Ahmed Almheiri: From the UAE to Firewalls

By Kelly Devine Thomas

In 2012, Ahmed Almheiri, current Member in the School of Natural Sciences, coauthored a paper that confounded theoretical physicists, sparked attention from the New York Times to Scientific American, and prompted the organization of workshops and the publication of dozens of papers around the world.

Entanglement and the Geometry of Spacetime

By Juan Maldacena

When one considers black holes as quantum mechanical objects, an important feature arises: "entangled" microstates. Can entanglement give rise to wormholes connecting far away regions in space?

Unfashionable Pursuits, Leaps in the Dark, and Detecting Gravitational Waves

By Freeman J. Dyson

Great scientists start new fields of science by making leaps in the dark. Nature decides which of the leaps is right and which is wrong. The Institute can be proud that we supported both Einstein and Joseph Weber, great scientists with their risky ventures, more than half a century before Nature proved them right and wrong.

The IAS Questionnaire

Astrophysicist David Spergel on what determines his focus, the most surprising thing he’s learned, and the questions that he’d most like answered

The Advent and Fallout of EPR

By Kelly Devine Thomas

An IAS teatime conversation in 1935 between Nathan Rosen, Boris Podolsky, and Albert Einstein, about a fundamental issue of interpretation related to entangled wave-functions, introduced an ongoing debate over quantum physics.

A New Era of Gravitational-Wave Astronomy

The first detection of gravitational waves brought with it spacetime ripples, black-hole collisions, and surprising systems.

The Astrophysics Behind LIGO’s Detection

By Doron Kushnir

Long before they reached the required sensitivity to detect a merger of two neutron stars, the LIGO detectors observed a gravitational-wave signal from a black hole–black hole merger about one billion light years away. 

The Geometry of Random Spaces

By Matthew Kahle

I sometimes like to think about what it might be like inside a black hole. What does that even mean? Is it really “like” anything inside a black hole? Nature keeps us from ever knowing. But mathematics and physics make some predictions.

Charting One’s Course through Mirror Symmetry

By Paul Seidel

One of the current challenges comes from quantum physics, which indicates that space should be an emergent concept, rather than a fundamental one. To a geometer, this is rather disconcerting, like demanding that a painter start without a canvas.

Historical Studies

Genetics and Identity

By Patrick J. Geary

Is a regional identity necessarily an ethnic identity? . . . The Greek term ethnos, from which our modern ethnic derives, has a long and troubled history.

Social Science

Promoting Human Rights and Democracy in China

By Teng Biao

“Think independently!”––I can still remember well how excited I was the first time I heard this sentence.

The Zaydi Manuscript Tradition

By Sabine Schmidtke

The Yemeni manuscript collections constitute a unique treasure trove for large segments of the Islamic intellectual tradition—Sunni as well as Shii.

Erwin Panofsky–Jan van Eyck–Philip Pearlstein

By Irving Lavin

The portrait of art historian Erwin Panofsky, late Professor in the School of Historical Studies, installed in the Institute’s Historical Studies–Social Science Library, was commissioned from Philip Pearlstein in 1993. The portrait was the result of a series of coincidences that Panofsky liked to call “accidents on the highways of tradition,” this time involving a collision of at least a half-dozen vehicles of history.

Foreign Policy and Historical Analogy

By Jonathan Finer

Having worked closely with outstanding scientists ... I came to appreciate how essential such expertise and perspectives are to policymaking.

Natural Sciences

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

By Freeman J. Dyson

I do not take the Prisoner’s Dilemma seriously as a model of evolution of cooperation, because I consider it likely that groups lacking cooperation are like dodoes, losing the battle for survival collectively rather than individually.

Terrorism and Just War

By Michael Walzer

What is wrong with terrorism? How is terrorism chosen—picked out of all the possible political strategies? How ought we to fight against terrorism? Or better, what are the moral limits that anti-terrorists ought to recognize?

Historical Studies

Embedded Portraits: Appending a New Myth to an Old Myth

By Christopher S. Wood

The world is emergent and always unfolding in time. Painting has difficulty representing this kind of time. The portrait tries to do that, paradoxically, by representing the individual fixed in his­torical time. 

Picasso and Abstraction: Encounters and Avoidance

By Yve-Alain Bois

Picasso did not speak often about abstraction, but when he did, it was either to dismiss it as complacent decoration or to declare its very notion an oxymoron. But though he swore to never again go near abstraction, he could not resist testing his resolve.