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A day at Genius Camp: getting dumb in Einstein's paradise

IAS Campus 1020

My eyes are glazing over. It’s been less than 10 minutes since I slinked into the last row of chairs inside this makeshift outdoor auditorium, where a young woman with a tightly-bound ponytail and a sharp German accent is motoring through a series of PowerPoint slides. Holomorphic modular forms. A partition of a positive integer n. Ramanujan congruences. I always had a knack for math, but my AP algebra training isn’t helping much as I attempt to understand how one indecipherable equation can explain other indecipherable equations that somehow illustrate a point about that first equation and how if you then account for the eigenvalue that’ll bring us all back to Weak Maass Form and did she just invent all of these symbols to fuck with everyone?

A quick glance around the packed room, however, suggests that I’m one of few people who isn’t spellbound by this dizzying theoretical witchcraft. An audience of several dozen attendees, many of them men in wool blazers and the advanced stages of age-related hair loss, nod knowingly and scribble down notes. "What might be the practical applications for this work?" asks one audience member during a question period. The presenter, Kathrin Bringmann of the University of Cologne, laughs. "Of course, this is abstract," she says of her session titled "Dyson’s Rank, Harmonic Weak Maass Form, and Recent Developments." "I’m not exactly going to use it to create the next iPhone or something." The audience chuckles appreciatively. I slide a little further down in my seat, tucking my iPhone into my pocket at the same time. I am unequivocally the stupidest person in this room.

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Freeman Dyson. Photo by Andrea Kane

Over the next eight hours, that sense of profound intellectual inadequacy will only become more pronounced. As, I suppose, it rightly should. In a rare opportunity, I’ve been invited to spend the day at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), an isolated, 800-acre compound in Princeton, NJ, that has for 83 years called itself home to many of the world’s most brilliant scientists: Albert Einstein, Alan Turing and Kurt Godel, among dozens of other notable scholars, all worked on some of their most seminal research at IAS. And on this recent September weekend, the Institute convened a series of seminars to acknowledge the life and work of yet another brilliant thinker. Freeman Dyson, a profoundly influential physicist and mathematician, was celebrating both his 90th birthday and his 60th year as a member of IAS’s exclusive faculty.

The Institute, as its leaders readily proclaim, takes a different approach to academia than other hubs of higher learning. For one, IAS is exceedingly insular: no undergraduate students cram the study halls, the Institute campus is typically closed to the public, and members of the media aren’t often invited to rub shoulders with resident scientists. That self-contained stance has been intentional, and it’s one that reflects the Institute’s atypical model for academic study — faculty members don’t teach, scholars don’t need to publish, and nobody will tell anybody what they should and shouldn’t investigate. Everybody at IAS has carte-blanche to do whatever it is that they want.

But now, as I learned firsthand, the Institute’s approach is slowly thawing. Leaders worry that modern attitudes towards scientific research threaten to marginalize the kind of theoretical thinking they continue to espouse — and thereby thwart the potential breakthroughs that may come of it. They want to ensure that their own scientists, and the geniuses of the future, will still have an academic home to support their work. And they want to prove to the general public that theoretical research should not only be encouraged, but should be celebrated as well. All of which means that after decades of closing their gates to the outside world, the IAS is more often welcoming journalists like me into the fold. And then intimidating the hell out of us.

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Bloomberg Hall Lounge. Photo by Andrea Kane

A scientific Shangri-La

It doesn’t take a presentation in theoretical mathematics to leave an IAS outsider in awe — simply walking around campus should do the trick. First founded in 1930 with a $5 million endowment from siblings and department store magnates Louis and Caroline Bamberger, the Institute today consists of several brick buildings and understated housing complexes, linked by paved walkways and surrounded on all sides by expansive fields, forests, and waterways that comprise a vast nature reserve known as "the Institute Woods."

"We want those sparks to ignite, and we want to create the space for that to happen."

These breathtaking environs are more than just aesthetic. From its earliest days, the Institute was meant to be an oasis for bright minds — something of a tranquil, meditative, scientific shangri-la. And that philosophy extends to the rest of the Institute’s design: on-campus housing and dining facilities, along with a daycare, fitness center, sporting fields, and other amenities, mean that scholars (and their families) never really need to go anywhere. Instead, the idea goes, they’ll have the time, space, and energy to focus on the big, brilliant thoughts that comprise their scientific niche.

For Institute scholars, those topics can fall into any one of four primary schools: historical studies, mathematics, natural sciences, and social sciences. Around 28 faculty members reside on-campus full-time, while up to 200 "visiting members" — researchers from various universities around the world — spend anywhere from six months to five years years living and working at the Institute. "These are very close quarters, and that is by design," Robbert Dijkgraaf, the Institute’s director, tells me. "It’s conducive to the interactions we know are important — we want those sparks to ignite, and we want to create the space for that to happen."

Historically, the Institute has largely succeeded at that goal. It was during his tenure as a faculty member that Albert Einstein made key refinements to his unified field theory — a realm of theoretical physics that continues to be closely scrutinized by scientists around the world. A team that included John von Neumann in the 1940’s developed a prototype for the modern-day computer. Freeman Dyson, in his six decades at the Institute, has conducted valuable work on an eclectic mix of subjects — including quantum electrodynamics, nuclear pulse propulsion space flight, climate science, and even game theory. "These are the kinds of research we should be prizing," Dijkgraaf says. "We are the physical manifestation of the fact that people should follow their imagination in scientific work — and that this will, in time, bring with it great rewards."

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School of Natural Sciences seminar. Photo by Andrea Kane

The mean girls of genius school

As intimidating as the morning’s sessions were, lunch may have been even worse. In a packed cafeteria, small cliques of scientists dig into grilled salmon or vegetarian curry and submerge themselves in fervent conversations. None of those discussions, contrary to the lunchtime chatter at my own office, involve speculations about the Breaking Bad series finale or heated debates over the relative merits of a SodaStream. Eyes flit up briefly to examine the intruder wandering amidst the tables, before quickly dismissing her in favor of current company. Let me be honest: I was the Mean Girl in high school. Now I know what the other side felt like.

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Helmut Hofer (left) and Avi Wigderson (right). Photo by Andrea Kane

I finally gravitate towards a smiling, rotund gentleman holding court over a rapt crowd of fellow diners. His name is Dr. Helmut Hofer (yes, the same Helmut Hofer whose groundbreaking research ushered in a new field known as "Hofer geometry"), and within minutes he’s assembled a small entourage of visiting scholars for a group interview outside. Hofer worked as a professor at NYU prior to joining the Institute’s permanent faculty in 2008. He and his fellow researchers all agree that IAS offers them something that other schools don’t: freedom from research expectations and the associated financial strain. "Nobody tells you what to think about, or says, ‘I’ll only give you money if you think about how to solve this problem’," Hofer says. "It’s harder and harder to get money [for research] and here we don’t deal so much with that stress."

That’s mostly because the IAS operates outside of conventional research funding paradigms. The Institute relies on endowment funds to pay faculty, offer stipends to visiting scholars, and covers expenses like dining and housing. An organization called Friends for the Institute for Advanced Study proffers additional money in exchange for "the opportunity to interact with institute faculty and members" over fireside chats and special forums. And the Institute’s board of trustees counts Google’s Eric Schmidt and Mario Draghi (president of the European Central Bank and Forbes Magazine’s eighth most powerful person in the world) among its esteemed — and exceedingly wealthy — members. In other words, Institute scholars are largely immune to the strings often attached to scientific grants. Nor do they suffer the repercussions of tightening research budgets, which are forcing some scientists to turn to unconventional (and unpredictable) sources of money. You won’t find Hofer’s latest research proposal on Kickstarter.

"People want to see deliverables in one year, two years, three years. But that isn’t the example we want to set."

But that financial invincibility isn’t ironclad. Visiting scholars sometimes receive funding from the National Science Foundation, the US Department of Energy, NASA, and other government agencies. And that money is increasingly in danger: federal sequestration this year indiscriminately stripped billions from research groups including the NIH and the NSF, eliminating grants and even costing some scientists their jobs. Plus, controversial legislation — spearheaded by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) — threatens to overhaul how the NSF allocates that dwindling cash. More specifically, Smith wants the government to fund only those projects that will "advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and...secure the national defense." Many of the risky, more theoretical projects tackled by IAS scholars don’t fit that paradigm. "Researchers are overwhelmed by short-term thinking," Dijkgraaf says. "People want to see deliverables in one year, two years, three years. But that isn’t the example we want to set."

IAS scholars need not show any deliverables from their research at all. Hofer points out that many scholars publish less during their time at the Institute (if they publish at all) simply because they took "a riskier path" that didn’t pan out. And Institute residents are adamant that this doesn’t mean, as some critics have contended, that the approach lays waste to great minds by allowing them to rest idly. Instead, it allows them to focus on research topics that invigorate them — and do so in a community where they feel like they fit in. Perhaps not surprisingly, theoretical mathematicians often know what social rejection feels like too. "We do research, we do more research, then we eat and end up talking about our research, and then we do more research," says IAS member David Geraghty, a theoretical mathematician working with Hofer. Moments later, after I ask him what he studies and gape blankly at his response, he explains that he’s seen that same reaction more times than he wishes to count. "It helps a lot," he smirks at me, "that I’m working in a community where people’s eyes don’t go dead when I tell them what I do."

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Albert Einstein (left) and Kurt Godel (right). From the Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives Center

‘A purity of principle’

"When this Higgs thing is wrapped up, they must do a book about it. I guess that real books are obsolete, or so they say, but this can’t be an e-book or something. It can’t be a blog post or a magazine article. This deserves a real book. A thick one." Nima Arkani-Hamed is gesturing wildly to a fellow physicist on the IAS lawns, as the two discuss which of their close friends and colleagues should co-author the definitive book about new progress in the Standard Model of particle physics.

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John von Neumann. From the Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives Center

Arkani-Hamed is a renowned particle physicist who previously taught at UC Berkeley and Harvard, before joining the IAS faculty in 2009. After hearing other IAS scholars sing his praises, I approached Arkani-Hamed for an interview, which he agreed to do before getting sidetracked by the inadequacy of e-books in conveying the import of groundbreaking science. Now, I’m doing my best to impersonate a fellow impassioned particle physicist who fits right into this conversation, all while hoping that nobody too important walks by and sees the panic in my eyes. Clearly, Arkani-Hamed’s excitement over the vindication of quantum field theory outstrips any interest in small talk with a journalist.

When Arkani-Hamed finally regains his composure, he uses the discovery of the Higgs boson to illustrate why institutes like the IAS need to exist. "There is a purity of principle to what we do here," he says. "The Institute understands that progress often comes in increments, and you need a lot of time, a lot of failure, and a lot of work to answer these big, fundamental questions. Patience for that is more and more rare in our society."

"Decades later, this work that can seem crazy has the potential to totally transform our lives."

Indeed, those are precisely the lessons that Dijkgraaf and other Institute leaders hope they can demonstrate with their ongoing work. "There’s often a long and tortured path to the final product, and it starts with theoretical thinking," Dijkgraaf says. "But decades later, this work that can seem crazy has the potential to totally transform our lives." The Institute, from what they tell me, doesn’t have some grand gameplan to maintain their perceived relevance or to keep their coffers well-lined. Leaders instead seem convinced that by continuing to attract the brightest minds in the world with a tranquil, collegial environment, the IAS will remain relevant simply by conducting research that has an indelible impact. They just don’t really know what that research is yet.

Institute physicists, for instance, are currently tackling problems in quantum mechanics, space-time, and string theory. But such big questions, in any area of scientific pursuit, tend not to yield immediate answers. "Sometimes with this kind of work, you go on for years without being sure that you’re on the right track," Arkani-Hamed says. "But here’s what I can tell you: you never know when we’re going to see a massive breakthrough. And when one happens, I can bet you it’ll happen here." Unless, that is, it’s a new iPhone.

Lead Photo: Fuld Hall. Photo by Andrea Kane. All photos courtesy of the Institute for Advanced Study

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