Pursuit of Genius: A book review by Bob Morris

Pursuit of Genius: Flexner, Einstein, and the Early Faculty at the Institute for Advanced Study
Steve Batterson
A K Peters/CRC Press (2006)

The birth and early years of a truly unique intellectual community

I recently re-read and now review a special book in which Steve Batterson focuses on the creation and development of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (NJ). Briefly, it was founded in 1930 by Abraham Flexner, together with philanthropists Louis Bamberger and his wife, Caroline (“Carrie”) Bamberger Fuld.

According to Batterson, “From the beginning the faculty identified and hosted scholars who had already received their doctoral degrees. These visitors, who became members, typically remained at the Institute for a year. Fifty years later, I was a member and marveling at Flexner’s legacy…There were neither classes to teach nor service duties to perform. It was an environment totally devoted to the enhancement of research.”

In his autobiography, Flexner recalls:

“I was working quietly one day when the telephone rang and I was asked to see two gentlemen who wished to discuss with me the possible uses to which a considerable sum of money might be placed. At our interview, I informed them that my competency was limited to the education field and that in this field it seemed to me that the time was ripe for the creation in America of an institute in the field of general scholarship and science, resembling the Rockefeller Institute in the field of medicine—developed by my brother Simon—not a graduate school, training men in the known and to some extent in methods of research, but an institute where everyone—faculty and members—took for granted what was known and published, and in their individual ways, endeavored to advance the frontiers of knowledge.”

Not everyone was pleased with what the Institute became within a few years:

“When I was at Princeton in the 1940s I could see what happened to those great minds at the Institute for Advanced Study, who had been specially selected for their tremendous brains and were now given this opportunity to sit in this lovely house by the woods there, with no classes to teach, with no obligations whatsoever. These poor bastards could now sit and think clearly all by themselves, OK? So they don’t get any ideas for a while: They have every opportunity to do something, and they’re not getting any ideas. I believe that in a situation like this a kind of guilt or depression worms inside of you, and you begin to worry about not getting any ideas. And nothing happens. Still no ideas come. Nothing happens because there’s not enough real activity and challenge: You’re not in contact with the experimental guys. You don’t have to think how to answer questions from the students. Nothing!”

Richard Feynman, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, 1985

Batterson devotes the final chapter, “Fast Forward,” to those years, citing the issues that Feynman raised. He also shares this observation by Institute astrophysicist John Bahcall: “Everyone who gets to the Institute as a permanent professor gets here because he’s done – in all cases – two important things. Otherwise you don’t get here. It’s very hard to do more than two important things in the sciences. Or even do one. So often your best work is done before you get here permanently.”

Whatever flaws the Institute has had, the fact remains that the collective genius was probably unsurpassed, even by the great universities in Europe (notably Heidelberg) and the UK (All Souls College, Oxford). Wexler certainly deserves a great deal of credit for the stature that the Institute gained and continues to possess but it should also be noted that Adolph Hitler played a significant role during Wexler’s search for superior talent in the 1930s. Theoretical physicist Albert Einstein, for example, immigrated to the United States to escape Nazi persecution.

With regard to its impact, consider these achievements cited by Wikipedia: From the day it opened the IAS had a major impact on mathematics, physics, economic theory, and world affairs. In mathematics forty-one out of fifty-seven Fields Medalists have been affiliated with the Institute. Thirty-three Nobel Laureates have been working at the IAS. Of the sixteen Abel Prizes awarded since the establishment of that award in 2003, nine were garnered by Institute professors or visiting scholars. Of the fifty-six Cole Prizes awarded since the establishment of that award in 1928, thirty-nine have gone to scholars associated with the IAS at some point in their career. IAS people have won 20 Wolf Prizes in mathematics and physics. Its more than 6,000 former members hold positions of intellectual and scientific leadership throughout the academic world.

Pioneering work on the theory of the stored-program computer as laid down by Alan Turing was done at the IAS by John von Neumann, and the IAS machine built in the basement of the Fuld Hall from 1942 to 1951 under von Neumann’s direction introduced the basic architecture of all modern digital computers. The IAS is the leading center of research in string theory and its generalization M-theory introduced by Edward Witten at the IAS in 1995. The Langlands program, a far-reaching approach which unites parts of geometry, mathematical analysis, and number theory was introduced by Robert Langlands, the mathematician who now occupies Albert Einstein’s old office at the institute. Langlands was inspired by the work of Hermann Weyl, André Weil, and Harish-Chandra, all scholars with wide-ranging ties to the Institute, and the IAS maintains the key repository for the papers of Langlands and the Langlands program. The IAS is a main center of research for homotopy type theory, a modern approach to the foundations of mathematics which is not based on classical set theory. A special year organized by Institute professor Vladimir Voevodsky and others resulted in a benchmark book in the subject which was published by the Institute in 2013.

Theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer served as the third Director of the Institute from 1947 until 1966, thus far the longest tenure of any Institute Director. Prior to his Directorship, in 1942, Oppenheimer was appointed to the Manhattan Project, and he oversaw the construction of the Los Alamos laboratory, where he gathered the best minds in physics to work on the problem of creating an atomic bomb. While Director of the Institute, Oppenheimer was simultaneously Chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission from 1947 through 1952, overseeing all atomic research and development in the United States.

He once observed, “There must be no barriers to freedom of inquiry. There is no place for dogma in science. The scientist is free, and must be free to ask any question, to doubt any assertion, to seek for any evidence, to correct any errors.” Thank you, Steve Batterson, for making it possible for so many people to return in time to the establishment and subsequent development of an intellectual community unlike any other, one whose values Oppenheimer affirms in his observation.

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