It’s hard to imagine an academic institution that is more committed to undirected, unfettered scholarship – knowledge for knowledge’s sake – than the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. In an age when many are bemoaning the so-called corporatization of academe, the IAS stands proudly in the footsteps of its founding Director Abraham Flexner, who diligently leveraged the fortune of Louis Bamberger and his sister Catherine Bamberger Fuld to create the first private, independent, American center for pure research and scholarship in 1930.
The IAS is not a university. Its faculty face no teaching requirements and shoulder very limited administration so as to ensure that they are best able to dedicate themselves to following their intellectual inclinations wherever they might lead. Its postdoctoral fellows (“members”) are given complete freedom to interact with whomever they so choose during their extended stay of typically three years. And its students – well, the IAS formally has no students, either undergraduate or graduate. If you want students, go to nearby Princeton University. There are lots of them there.
It’s not a place that works for everyone, of course. Inevitably some think it too stuffy and out of touch. The celebrated theoretical physicist Richard Feynman once turned down a faculty appointment there, citing the pressure of being in an environment where there was “nothing to do other than think all day long.” But you can’t argue with success: the IAS has been home to one of the most enviable collections of the world’s finest minds: logician Kurt Gödel, cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz, statesman George Kennan, art historian Erwin Panofsky, mathematical fireball John von Neumann, physicist and Manhattan Project leader Robert Oppenheimer; and, of course, Albert Einstein. (more…)
In many ways, the march of scientific progress can be viewed as an unrelenting peeling away of our innate sense of uniqueness. In the last few hundred years, we have gone from regarding ourselves as a divinely-favored species placed squarely at the center of a revolving cosmological light show, to a randomly evolved concatenation of DNA on an unremarkable planet, orbiting an average type of star, in a not terribly noteworthy position of a fairly run-of-the-mill type of spiral galaxy, in a gargantuan, and thoroughly indifferent, universe.
Such a precipitous descent from the privileged to the mundane is humbling, to say the least, but in what might be somewhat skeptically regarded as our innate predilection to the grandiose, many now have enthusiastically elevated our reluctantly-concluded averageness to nothing less than a cosmological statute: the Copernican principle, sometimes called the mediocrity principle, inverts the argument to pronounce that everything about our situation is overwhelmingly, necessarily, common.
Just as grabbing someone off the street at random will result, in nine out of ten cases, with coming face to face with a right-handed person, one should naturally expect that our planet, star, solar system, galaxy and particular region of the universe – taken, as it were, at random out of all the possible places we might have found ourselves – should instead be, well, pretty much the same as just about everywhere else.
But as fond as we are of postulating principles, modern science relies even more strongly on measurement. The philosophical pendulum might have swung from one end to the other, but now that we have the tools to carefully examine plentiful numbers of planets and planetary systems outside of our solar system, what does the experimental evidence say? (more…)