Thinking

Peter Campbell

  • Who got Einstein’s office? Eccentricity and Genius at the Institute for Advanced Study by Ed Regis
    Simon and Schuster, 316 pp, £12.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 671 69923 7
  • Chaos by James Gleick
    Heinemann, 354 pp, £12.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 434 29554 X
  • The School of Genius by Anthony Storr
    Deutsch, 216 pp, £12.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 233 98010 5

I was in Los Angeles this spring on the day Richard Feynman died. The next morning I saw a banner lowered from the top of the tower block which stands in the middle of the Caltech campus. It read: ‘WE LOVE YOU DICK.’ The obituary of Feynman in the LA Times was awed and affectionate. It listed his achievements – his work in physics, the Nobel Prize it earned him and his work on the nuclear bomb. It also recalled his reputation as a womaniser, a drummer and a teacher, and the broadcast hearings of the inquiry into the Challenger disaster, and how Feynman demonstrated what might have gone wrong: he called for a glass of ice water, dunked in it for a few minutes a piece of the rubber used to seal the joints between the rocket stages, and showed how it had lost all its resilience. This example of practical science caught the imagination of the country in the same way that his lectures caught the imagination of students at Caltech. Here was the Sane Scientist – the heir of Benjamin Franklin. Feynman appears several times in Ed Regis’s wonderful book about the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton (the members of which often appear in the Mad Scientist mode) as an advocate of worldly engagement. His words head an epilogue which asks difficult questions about the productivity of ivory towers:

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 an idea 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 students. Nothing.

It was decided from the start that the Institute should be a place for thinking, and nothing else. It was set up in the early Thirties, with money provided by Louis Bamberger and his sister Caroline Bamberger Fuld, owners of a New Jersey department store. They sold out in 1929, just before the Crash, and wanting to give something to Newark, consulted Abraham Flexner. Flexner diverted their philanthropy from a new medical school in New Jersey to a new Platonic academy at Princeton, which would, incidentally, realise a special dream of his own. He wanted to set up a ‘free society of scholars’. ‘Free because mature persons, animated by intellectual purposes, must be left to pursue their own ends in their own way’, and free of distraction ‘either by worldly concerns or the parental responsibility for an immature student body’. The Institute’s reputation was much enhanced by the ill wind out of Europe which blew in Albert Einstein as its first professor.

The tales of eccentric genius in Regis’s book are hilarious and sad. Gödel, for example, almost did himself out of American citizenship because he would not let logical flaws go unremarked:

On April 2 1948. Gödel showed up at the government offices in Trenton, accompanied by Einstein and Morgenstern who were there as witnesses. On the drive down to Trenton, Einstein kept telling a bunch of stories and anecdotes to keep Gödel’s mind off the logical problems of the American Constitution. But then the proceedings began. ‘Up to now you have held German citizenship ... ’ the official began, but Gödel jumped in and corrected this immediately. He was an Austrian, not a German. ‘Anyhow,’ the official continued, ‘it was under an evil dictatorship, but fortunately that is not possible in America ... ’

‘On the contrary,’ Gödel cried out, ‘I know how that can happen.’

Gödel, whose proof of the necessary incompleteness of logical systems had undermined the best hopes of early 20th-century mathematics, starved himself to death, believing his doctors were poisoning him. Dirac, who said, ‘I think it’s a peculiarity of myself that I like to play about with equations, just looking for beautiful mathematical relations which maybe don’t have any physical meaning at all,’ but correctly predicted the existence of anti-matter, was famous for his silences, saying nothing if there was nothing to be said. When two physicists who had come to him for some constructive criticism had elicited no word of comment after an hour of exposition he decided he must say something. So he asked where the post office was. Pauli, on the other hand, was famously rude and prodigiously arrogant. While still only a graduate student he stood up in a seminar given by Einstein and began: ‘You know, what Professor Einstein says is not so stupid.’

Most of the Institute’s illustrious members do their best work before they join it. They arrive with reputations which tend to isolate them from the post-docs on short-term fellowships. At this lower level the theory that creativity will flow if outside pressures are removed seems to work. Time is what the young need, and contact with their contemporaries as much as with great minds – which is just as well, because you have to have something pretty important to say to dare disturb one of the world’s great brains when it is thinking about the world’s deepest problems. There is none of the camaraderie of the laboratory, for there is no experimental work. Which is why the career of John von Neumann, who did do new work, and is the nearest thing the book has to a hero, is not typical. When he wanted to build a computer at the Institute he met resistance:

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