The Frontiers and Limits of Science

Every day, at the Institute for Advanced Study and elsewhere, scientists and scholars are exploring the frontiers of knowledge, from the structure of the universe to the patterns of human thought. But what is the shortest path from A to B, if you do not know where B is? History teaches us that the first step is often a step sideways, away from the beaten path. Successful research is therefore an endless cycle of imagination and concentration, of playing and thinking. However, in a time that stimulates and rewards mostly short-term thinking and direct applications, the opportunity to freely explore such original ideas is getting more and more constrained. These limits to science devalue our society and hamper the long-term solutions of the world’s most pressing problems. A possible way out could be a broader understanding and appreciation of the fundamental values of the pursuit of knowledge, such as experimentation, imagination, reflection, criticism, and openness, in particular among younger generations.

Robbert Dijkgraaf, Director of the Institute for Advanced Study and Leon Levy Professor since July 2012, is a leading mathematical physicist who has made significant contributions to string theory and the advancement of science education. He has identified deep connections between particle physics and mathematics, as well as between different areas of mathematical physics. His work has influenced understanding of string theory in low dimensions, topological strings, the dynamics of supersymmetric gauge theories, and the quantum states of black holes. A distinguished public policy adviser and passionate advocate for science and the arts, Dijkgraaf previously served as President of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (2008–12) and has been Co-Chair of the InterAcademy Council since 2009.

This talk was given for the Friends of the Institute for Advanced Study. To learn more about the Friends, please visit



Robbert Dijkgraaf, Director and Leon Levy Professor


Institute for Advanced Study