For the relative smattering of academics who have been privileged to walk its quiet paths, thinking intensively and expansively about great ideas, the Institute for Advanced Study is a nurturing haven outside the stresses of academic life. For many who are not intimately connected to its cloistered life, the Institute may seem more like a mystery wrapped in an enigma. But for society at large, the ideas allowed to freely develop in this oasis of scholarship have been a blessing.
Not quite new to the Institute — having been a visiting member himself in 1991-’92 and 2002 — Robbert Dijkgraaf became the Institute’s ninth director in July, 2012. What he found was a radical place. “It is 100 percent devoted to the idea that offering to take excellent people and let them free so they can follow their own dreams and their own curiosity,” he says. “This is the best way to make a contribution to society.”
Dijkgraaf — roughly pronounced die-graph — will speak on “The Value of Intellectual Enterprise” on Wednesday, March 20, at the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Business Before Business Breakfast, Nassau Club of Princeton, 6 Mercer Street. Cost: $40. For more information, call 609-924-1776.
The Institute has a permanent faculty of about 28 professors and about 200 visiting members from all over the world, in four different schools: historical studies, mathematics, natural sciences, and social science. Visitors in the humanities are often faculty on sabbatical whereas those in math and science are more likely to be postdoctoral fellows.
“People who are here make their own challenges; they don’t want to be told what they are doing,” says Dijkgraaf, reflecting that this has been his own experience throughout his life. “This is something I feel very strongly about — you can’t guide or steer curiosity; it finds its own way.”
The Institute is radical in another sense too — it is independent, with roughly 80 percent of its budget from its own endowment. “We are very grateful to the philanthropy that created this place,” says Dijkgraaf.
The story of the Institute’s founding and funding goes back to Abraham Flexner, its first director. Having analyzed similar institutions abroad, Flexner recognized the need for an advanced research institution in the United States. He had also done significant writing on American higher education, including medical education. So when the elderly Louis Bamberger and his sister, Caroline Bamberger Fuld, wanted to make a large charitable gift after selling the 40-year-old Newark-based L. Bamberger and Co. to Macy’s for $25 million, he was the person they turned to for advice.
What the brother and sister had in mind was to build a medical school in New Jersey because they wanted both to benefit the state and the Newark area in particular and to counter anti-Semitism in medicine by establishing a medical school with a preference for Jewish students.
But in the conversation between Flexner and their representatives, Samuel Leidesdorf and Herbert Maass, Flexner criticized the medical school idea for two reasons: because a first-rate medical school needed an outstanding teaching hospital and a leading university nearby, neither of which existed in Newark, and because setting up a medical school that favored Jews was unlikely to reduce anti-Semitism.
Instead he broached the idea of the Institute, and Bamberger and Fuld went for it. In 1930 they donated $5 million for the creation of an Institute for Advanced Study, and although they had hoped it would be in Newark, they were persuaded to go to Princeton because it offered proximity to a great library and a wider intellectual community. “The fact that a place like this even exists is quite magical,” says Dijkgraaf. “The impact on the people who work here is tremendous.”
This has been true for Dijkgraaf, starting with his first visit as a graduate student. “It was a crucial period in my career, a moment when I made a radical change,” says Dijkgraaf, who was born and raised in the Netherlands. “You come in with all sorts of ideas and something happens — and maybe it is unexpected — and you make a change.”
In a casual conversation during that visit with Edward Witten, a professor who was then and still is today Dijkgraaf’s hero, Witten issued a challenge. “He asked me what I felt we should be working on,” Dijkgraaf says, noting that this kind of openness was something he treasures about the Institute.
Dijkgraaf returned to the Netherlands and E-mailed Witten about an idea that had grown out of their discussion, and the response he got was life-changing. Witten wrote: “I’ve also given it some thought, and if you think my contribution would be worthwhile, why don’t we write a paper together?” Notes Dijkgraaf: “Ed could have been very dismissive, but he wasn’t.”
The Institute prides itself on being a “community of scholars” that allows people who work in very focused areas in their home institutions to be inspired by academic approaches from different fields. Hence Institute life is structured to create a strong sense of community. As in a university, people attend formal seminars, lectures, and working-group meetings, but there are many opportunities for informal get-togethers, in the belief that informal interactions often spark great ideas.
So every day (except in August) between 3 and 4:30 p.m. is teatime in the common room of Fuld Hall. Then twice a week during about four months of the year, interdisciplinary “after-hours conversations” of scholars from different schools follow a short no-notes talk on some exciting current works. And of course there is lunch in the Institute’s dining hall and domestic chores, like laundry, where chance meetings may develop into collaborations.
The Institute gets hundreds of applications each year for only a handful of positions, and carefully reviewing these applications is one of the main jobs of the Institute faculty. Almost all people who are invited, accept. “We see this as a testimonial to the strength of the place — young researchers who have just jumped into the deep end and want to go to a place where they can progress and work with people who will encourage their own work,” says Dijkgraaf.
The faculty are also selected very carefully. “Every new faculty member is a big change because it is such a small group and very collegial,” he says. “Our ambition is to get the very best people.”
At the same time, the Institute is a very modest place. “People are not here wearing their medals,” says Dijkgraaf, who nonetheless expressed pride that among the nine winners of a new fundamental physics prize that started this summer were four particle physicists at the Institute — whereas both Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology got only one each.
Both the young people who are visiting members and distinguished faculty are part of the discussion at the Institute. Perhaps exemplary of the Institute’s open, very flat structure is the fact that one of its professors, Freeman Dyson, never got a doctorate.
But the Institute has evolved from its beginnings in the 1930s when, says Dijkgraaf, “it was a place thought of as a paradise for scholars that would be in some ways isolated from the world — encouraging scholarship and not looking at immediate applications.”
Now its view is more nuanced. “The Institute has a very clear vision about the enormous impact that undirected research can have on our lives,” says Dijkgraaf, “and that’s something we have a responsibility to speak to the world about.”
What they learned, 20 years into the Institute’s existence, was that scholars given enormous freedom to follow their interests would end up affecting the world in a big way. Describing the landscape 20 years after the Institute began, Dijkgraaf says, “The father of the atomic bomb was sitting in this office, with a marine sitting outside of the door; and in the basement of the building one of the first programmable computers was built,” he says. “It’s amazing to see that even in the small part of the history of learning that is the Institute for Advanced Study how fundamental ideas led to absolutely transformational technologies — computers and nuclear energy that have been transforming the world in a direct way.”
What worries him today is that people may begin looking at the world with very short-term vision, looking at what impact research may have for the next year or the year after. “In times of economic crisis and difficulty,” says Dijkgraaf, “our horizon shrinks and we look only at the immediate. Giving opportunities for young people to discover their dreams is becoming difficult.”
But not to worry, he says, “often it is quite easy to see, looking back, that for really important changes in our society, the first steps were often taken by a scholar or a scientist who was just curious.”
After all, 100 years ago, the field of quantum mechanics comprised only a handful of scientists who wondered how the atom worked, whereas now it is estimated that 50 percent of all industry is based on quantum mechanics. Similarly, 200 years ago electricity was looked upon as a nutty phenomenon using sparks and magnets that was nice for demos — “light entertainment” — and now, says Dijkgraaf, it is a part of 100 percent of everything we do.
The take home is simple. “As a society we should value these humble beginnings of deep, deep transformations,” he says, likening the process to finding the beginning of a roll of Scotch tape. “Once you have it, you can unroll it,” he says. “The beginning is the process you can’t guide. You don’t know who will make the discovery, where, and how; but you know they will only do this if they have an opportunity to think about and follow their own imagination.”
In his new position at the Institute, Dijkgraaf is learning more about its history and thinking about how it should be affecting the larger world. He says, “As part of academia, we should, as scientists and scholars, have to think about how we want to shape the academic world — what is important, what is our message to the outside world, and what are the values we are defending.”
An even bigger issue is how to shepherd and use the talent now coming of age in South America, Africa, and Asia. On the one hand, tremendous opportunities are available in research. “Cosmologists like to say: ‘In terms of the total content of the universe as measured by its energy, only 4 percent is made out of particles that people have won Nobel prizes for discovering,’” says Dijkgraaf.
To take advantage of these opportunities, an enormous potential for new talent exists. But, asks Dijkgraaf: “Are we grasping this moment? Are new generations able to grasp their dreams?” He has no firm answers, but offers the Institute as an ideal from which others can learn.
“In some sense it is a terrific example of how you can build a place where these opportunities are offered,” he says. In fact, since the Institute’s founding, hundreds of similar places have tried to replicate it, with different colorings and in different fields, and Dijkgraaf adds, “Our founders must be happy because we became almost like a movement.”
The Institute was distinguished early on by its openness to anyone with the right kind of project. “This place was ahead of the curve,” says Dijkgraaf. “In the 1930s it was open to people of any religion, sex, or nationality.” In fact, it was a place where top European scientists who fled from the Nazis were able to build a bridgehead.
The Institute also held the radical point of view that in scientific scholarship, there is only one world. “You shouldn’t think nationally, you should think internationally,” says Dijkgraaf.
The Institute’s quiet devotion to intellectual inquiry has also had repercussions in the academic communities beyond its walls. “I hadn’t realized as a young physicist how influential the establishment of this Institute was in the whole transformation of academic culture in the United States,” says Dijkgraaf, who adds, “To be fair, that is one of the reasons that Einstein, who could have gone anywhere, chose to go here. His personal attitude was in line with that thinking.”
Dijkgraaf grew up in the Netherlands and, as a child, attended a small village school. His father worked for the municipality in the Rotterdam harbor. Although this might suggest humble beginnings, two aspects of Dijkgraaf’s childhood environment in some sense directed him toward a future in science — his father’s intellectual curiosity and the small village school he attended as a child.
Although Dijkgraaf was the first in his family to go to the university, his father was intellectually drawn to history and had bookshelves sporting math and science tomes. “He was very brave,” says Dijkgraaf. Though he had little talent or training in science or math, his father bought these books — even though he had to stop reading at the first equation. Dijkgraaf, who started reading those books at age 12, recalls, “For me, it was quite a moment when I could go past page 2.” That, he admits, happened somewhat later, maybe about age 16.
When Dijkgraaf used to look back on his elementary school experience, he thought of it simply as a small school that did not in any way push him intellectually; but he changed his tune when he went back five years ago for a reunion. There he talked to his former teachers, who showed him clippings about the school from the 1960s. He recalls, “One said that a small school opened with a very experimental and progressive attitude toward life, and children at a very early age were encouraged to do their own thing.”
What he realized from this later vantage point was that what he had noticed about the school was done on purpose. “It allowed me to explore myself, which is important for young people becoming scientists,” he says. “I feel that every young person in very natural way is a scientist, curious, asking difficult questions, and often schools switch off that curiosity by pushing young people in kind of a strict way of thinking.”
He remembers both freedom and lots of projects. For example, when he was done with his math he would sit in the director’s office and illustrate the school newspaper. “I was one of these children who had great natural curiosity, and I think my elementary school fostered that and let me be adventurous,” he says. But the real work would start when he went home to his little lab with his friends.
From his early schooling, which he now sees as an ideal environment, he derives lessons for schools today. “I think it is very important that children get some exposure to things but also that we encourage the natural energy that young children have to investigate,” he says.
By age 16 he had begun to understand that a whole world existed beyond school — that he could have a career as a mathematician, a scientist, or a physicist. “For me, this was a great discovery,” he says. Describing himself as very ambitious, he plunged into learning, borrowing quantum mechanics and relativity theory books from the university library and designing and illustrating his own lecture courses.
But when he was finally able to enroll at the university, this organic learning came to a virtual standstill, because he had to fit into the regular curriculum. “I was doing rather complicated numerical calculations of orbits around black holes, according to Einstein’s theory,” he says, “and at the university, they said, ‘You have to do a project computing orbits according to Newton — it takes another four years until we are at that theory.’”
In contrast, he finds the American approach to college refreshing. “It is more a matter of individual tailoring — if you want to go fast, you can go fast,” he says.
Particularly galling to him about the rigidity of the university system in the Netherlands at that time was that his strong academic preparation and background — a prestigious gymnasium and an almost perfect score on the national exams, about which people had said, “never seen this” and “remarkable” — had no consequences. He suggests that this is now changing in the Netherlands, but points again to the contrast with the American system of encouraging students to excel and then rewarding them for excellence.
At some point, Dijkgraaf says, “I think I literally lost interest, which is a bad thing to happen.” He decided to leave the university and go to art school in Amsterdam at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy, where he spent lots of time painting and enjoyed it tremendously, including the sense of accomplishment. “Every week I had to produce material, and the stack kept growing,” he says
But soon he started to read physics books again and do physics computations, which caused him to carefully reconsider his future. He realized he couldn’t just ignore science because he cared too deeply about it, so he went back to the university after two years. But this time it was on his terms. Because he only wanted to do research, not take any more required courses, he decided to study hard over the summer and just take the exams that would allow him to move on to research.
He passed and was able to move on to what he loved. “I then knew I could have a stack of material at the end of the week, but now they were computations,” he says. He found a group of fellow graduate students who were excited about working in theoretical physics, and his official advisor, Gerard ‘t Hooft, was one of the best theoretical physicists in the world.
His advisor did not suggest problems for his graduate students to work on but rather gave them free rein to pick what interested them. Discussions with his advisor, he says, were very symmetrical, with each sharing what he was working on. “In some sense it was still a situation where you educated yourself, with your friends and colleagues,” says Dijkgraaf. “It gives you great confidence when everything you do is through your own ideas — bottom up instead of top down.”
Although Utrecht was not a big academic center, Dijkgraaf and his fellows started to realize that they had the same ideas as people they thought highly of and who were writing papers at Princeton and Harvard. After publishing a series of papers, they actually created a Dutch school in string theory, “We became a little center, which was quite uncommon for graduate students to do by themselves,” he says.
Dijkgraaf’s doctorate was in string theory, which at the end of the 1980s was an exciting new development, unifying all forces — both those that hold particles together and the force of gravity. It was something altogether new, and Dijkgraaf compares it metaphorically to surfing: “If you are young, you can jump in,” he says. “There are a lot of new things to be discovered.” Because the real center of this new wave of intellectual possibility was in Princeton, his next step was to procure an offer to work at Princeton University, and two years later at the Institute.
Moving to the United States from Utrecht, where his circle of colleagues was four or five graduate students, he found the community much larger, with maybe 100 people to talk to, including professors, post docs, and graduate students as well as big names in the field who would come through Princeton. But one year into a five-year position at the Institute, he was offered a position as full professor at the University of Amsterdam, and he decided to return. “I felt my country was calling,” he says.
In terms of colleagues he was back to square one, at best, because there was no research group in string theory in Amsterdam. He started to build it up and eventually, one by one, he was able to bring some of his fellow grad students to join him. “I tried to build a group with the core qualities that I had started to appreciate — independence; an open atmosphere; and flat in the sense that everyone can speak up, from graduate students to senior professors,” he says.
For the four years preceding his arrival as director of the Institute, Dijkgraaf served as president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. As head of the academy he had three roles. He was in charge of a large research organization that included all the national institutes and laboratories. As official science advisor to the government, he spent a lot of energy connecting science to policy. And as head of an organization whose members are selected because of their distinction in science, arts, and humanities, he had to speak out about the importance of the arts and humanities.
But the hands-on science became harder and harder to do because his work was consuming. “It was a job that was 24/7,” he says. “The Netherlands is a relatively small country, twice the size of New Jersey in population and area, and if anything happens, it was seen as my job to comment on it.”
When he was asked at some point whether he would like to be considered for the position of Institute director, he says, “My first impression was that it would be wonderful but I could never do this. I was so involved with my country and had so many strings attaching me to everything there that I thought, ‘Perhaps in a parallel life I could have done this.’”
But as it became a more serious option, the positives started to outweigh the negatives. Not only would he have time to spend on his own research, but his life would be on a much more human scale day to day. The Institute was a small place where he could build individual relationships, but at the same time Princeton was a world academic center, a base from which to do other things, like science policy. “I was tempted when I read what J. Robert Oppenheimer [a former Institute director] wrote — I can do one-third physics, one-third administration, and one-third policy,” he says.
Dijkgraaf and his wife, novelist and newspaper columnist Pia de Jong, have three children, the youngest of whom has her own remarkable story. When she was born the family was informed that she suffered from a deadly form of leukemia. Every case the oncologist knew about had been terminal with the exception of one — a child from a family with no medical insurance who had received no treatment. The Dijkgraafs decided to follow that example — they declined treatment, took the baby home, and she also survived.
Dijkgraaf is especially grateful to his three children — ages 16, 14, and 12 — for their willingness to try something new. “We wouldn’t have come here if they weren’t so adventurous,” he says. “They said yes before I said yes.” In discussing the possible move, his children told him that if they had to uproot themselves and move across the Atlantic, “You wouldn’t do this for a life very similar to what you have!”
In the end, the nature of the Institute itself almost made the decision for him. “For me, the Institute is such a legendary place, such a gravitational pull, that it was hard to resist at the end,” he says.
Nonetheless Dijkgraaf had worried that the people of the Netherlands would be upset when their native son chose to move abroad. But, he says, “the most marvelous thing happened. When it was announced in the Netherlands that I would leave and come here, there was a festive mood. People said, ‘We’re so proud that Robbert is going to Princeton and the Institute.’” Attributing their excitement to the special nature of the Institute, he says, “There was not a single doubt that I had made the right decision.”
Dijkgraaf’s appointment adds to what is already a truly international mix of the Institute, where 60 percent of its visiting members are from outside the United States, and of the active faculty, only seven were born here. “The world of knowledge is one,” says Dijkgraaf. “A mathematical equation means the same thing in Japan, Argentina, and the U.S.”
Whereas people from multiple nationalities do find the same equation beautiful, they come from different kinds of training. “They have their own local coloring and might reflect on things from different perspectives,” says Dijkgraaf.
“The value that science and scholarship brings to the world is a very deep way to feel we are one,” says Dijkgraaf. “Even during periods where various countries were hardly on speaking terms, as in the Cold War, there was a close relationship in physics between people on both sides of the Iron Curtain.” Similarly today, he adds, the only official program between Iran and the United States is one run by the National Academy of Science.
For Dijkgraaf, science is a gigantic collaboration. “If you see the value of what you do as individual research, you can’t see it as part of the infinite long chain of everyone who has thought about it,” he says. “That is what I notice with some of the people here — they are as distinguished as you can get, but they are very modest about their own contribution and see it in the light of the bigger picture.”
Hence, part of the obligation of scientists is to pass on the mantle of knowledge opportunity to the next generation. “In some sense, building this great fabric of knowledge goes on and on, and that is in some sense the greatest pleasure of being a scientist or a scholar — you are part of this family.”
Institute for Advanced Study, Einstein Drive, Princeton 08540; 609-734-8000; fax, 609-924-8399. Robbert Dijkgraaf, director. www.ias.edu.
From his experience as a child in school, as a scientist and as a policy advisor, Robbert Dijkgraaf has developed strong ideas on science education:
Don’t focus only in the details, but also why they are important. While students certainly must be trained in the basics, motivation is also critical — “by showing not just the exam you have to take, but that there is a light beyond the exam,” says Dijkgraaf.
Develop innate talent. “You have to talk to young people about the talents they have,” he says. “If they have talent in a certain academic discipline, they should be encouraged to develop it and also have the feeling why they should develop it.” They should be invited to join the efforts of scientists to understand things not yet understood. “As a scientist, you should think about the things you do not know,” he says.
Allow individuality in teachers. One thing Dijkgraaf finds positive about good schools in the United States is that there is space for teachers to develop their own individual approaches. “It is very important that people feel empowered, that they can use their own methods and can shape in some sense the curriculum so they feel it is part of their own story,” he says.
Build networks among teachers. In the Netherlands networks have been developed between teachers in middle and high schools and professors in colleges and universities. He ran a program there in which his physics students developed material with small experiments for elementary school children, and they would go into the classrooms, give presentations to the students, and would have good conversations with the teachers, who were almost their own age.
Reflect the diversity. Enormous diversity exists among both students and teachers, and the educational material and approach must in some sense reflect that diversity. “For some, it might be the immediate application that draws interest, while others are fascinated by abstract issues,” he says. “The person where it all has to come together is the teacher.
Celebrate teachers by giving them time to develop themselves. Parents care deeply about their children’s education, but a lot depends on the quality of the teacher. Not only should teachers be respected by society, but they need to learn as well as teach — as academics have the opportunity to do.
“I go sit at seminars and hear what the recent discoveries and inventions are, and I take notes,” Dijkgraaf says. “It is important for teachers to see what they are doing as something that lives, and they should have time to refresh and strengthen their skills.”
The skills children and young adults must learn may be the ones they will need 25 years down the line. “We have to imagine the future and what kinds of skills they will need and actually transfer these skills, which is a long and deep investment,” he says. “People do not always realize what a difficult job that is.”