Institute is on global lookout for exceptional minds
In the quest for scientific advancements, it pays off to invest in the very best and the very brightest. A talk with the head of Princeton’s famed Institute for Advanced Study shows how that’s being done.
Seattle Times technology columnist
Technology companies talk a lot about going to the ends of the earth, trying to find the smartest people.
Their hunt these days is starting earlier and earlier, with programs introducing elementary-school children to computer science. Then there are generous internships for promising high school and college students followed by all sorts of recruiting programs.
Introducing more students to math and science is noble and should help people and their future employers succeed in our evermore computerized world.
But there’s another reason to stock the pond with more fry. It also increases the chances of catching a big one.
This struck me during a conversation with Robbert Dijkgraaf, a Dutch mathematical physicist and director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, N.J., who was visiting Seattle recently.
While companies like Microsoft, Google and Amazon.com troll for 9s and 10s to build world-changing products, Dijkgraaf is on the lookout for 11s to work on the world’s hardest scientific problems.
The relationship between the institute and industry is more symbiotic than competitive, though.
“At this moment it’s interesting that both in academia and in high-tech there are opportunities for the very brightest,” Dijkgraaf said. “ I feel it’s the intellectual challenges which are key in both.”
“Actually we are still able to recruit really the brightest minds in terms of big challenges that are out there in science and math,” he continued, “but the fact that the same people and the same skills are also appreciated in industry only adds to it.”
Founded in 1930, the privately funded institute has about 30 faculty and 200 visiting scholars and over the years has had 33 Nobel laureates and 38 recipients of the Fields Medal in mathematics.
The institute is best known as the home of Albert Einstein through the end of his career. But it also had an on-and-off relationship with computing since the 1930s, when founding faculty member John von Neumann began early work on computer architecture.
More recently, Microsoft veteran Charles Simonyi has become a top benefactor and chairman of the institute’s board of trustees. He started a $25 million endowment in 2005 that created a professorship in honor of his father. That was followed with a $100 million challenge grant Simonyi and hedge-fund manager Jim Simons gave in 2011.
Simonyi is known for pioneering work at Xerox’s famed Palo Alto Research Center and later at Microsoft, where he led development of Word and Excel and became a billionaire.
Yet Simonyi said he’s not of the institute’s caliber.
“Very early in my studies it was obvious that I don’t have the talent — the truly exceptional talent — the faculty and the members and the visitors have there,” he said. “But I did pretty well in computer science, so I’m happy with my career choice.”
Perhaps the institute’s global perspective resonates with Simonyi, who defected from Hungary as a teenager to study in the U.S.
The institute was established during the Depression, in part to create jobs for Americans, but its founding commitment to diversity was immediately put to the test when it decided to open its doors to scientists and scholars fleeing Nazi Germany.
“It turned out that its mission was much larger than people thought,” Dijkgraaf said. “They thought it was a national issue. It became an international issue, and so within a few years, the center of mathematics of Europe ... it kind of decamped almost as a whole group to Princeton.”
As the U.S. debates immigration policy and becomes more xenophobic, you wonder if we would be so accepting if a similar situation arises in the future. Meanwhile, places like the institute — and America’s top companies — continue to look everywhere for the next great minds.
“It’s extremely powerful and it’s part of, I think, literally what made America great and still makes it great,” Dijkgraaf said. “Myself coming from Europe, I see that the United States and its institutions are a great magnet for talent from across the world.”
It seems to me that it’s a particularly important time to keep options open for immigrants and continue sending the message that they’re still welcome, especially the brightest minds.
As developing countries emerge, broaden their education systems and become more connected and visible through the Internet, the next Albert Einstein may very well surface in a place like Myanmar or Nigeria.
“We are living in an amazing time, that literally several new continents are joining in this great effort,” Dijkgraaf said, “so I think the talent pool ... is doubling, if not tripling.”
The gift of brilliance “strikes randomly across the population so we have terrific opportunities to mine talent ... in the end it’s pure statistics,” he said.
Only five of the institute’s roughly 30 current faculty members were born in the U.S. Younger members include physicists of Iranian and Argentine descent, such as Juan Maldacena, who is exploring connections between string theory and cosmology, and black holes and quantum theories.
“It’s very inspiring to see that talent is everywhere,” Dijkgraaf said.
Research in his realm has long crossed borders. He recalled reading Scientific American magazine as a high-school student and being struck by the collaborations between scientists in places like Sweden, Japan and the U.S.
“And then you become a scientist and you notice that something you find very pretty or elegant, beautiful — you go to Japan and somebody feels the same thing, has the same emotions, with the same mathematical equations,” he said.
“I think that’s extremely powerful — not only that you have talent everywhere, but we are all talented in the same thing,” he said. “We can relate as intensely to this, irrespective of your background, irrespective of your cultural history, irrespective of your family or how you were trained. It’s this universal thing.”
This is the World Cup the U.S. will dominate as long we keep drafting the best players.
Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org
About Brier Dudley
Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
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