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Scholars Nurture Einstein's Legacy at Institute

Charles Hillinger's America

January 12, 1986|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

PRINCETON, N.J. — In 1931, Albert Einstein became the Institute for Advanced Study's first professor. He came to this small New Jersey town, home of Princeton University, to continue his work in theoretical physics at the institute and remained here until his death in 1955.

It was Abraham Flexner, the institute's first director, who, during a visit to the Einstein's summer home near Berlin, persuaded the physicist to come to America. Einstein finally responded: "Ich bin Feuer und Flamme dafur!" ("I am fire and flame for it!")

When French physicist Paul Langevin heard Einstein had accepted Flexner's offer, he remarked: "It's as important an event as would be the transfer of the Vatican from Rome to America. The pope of physics has moved and the United States will now become the center of the natural sciences."

Since then, the Institute for Advanced Study has become the mecca for many of the world's most promising and distinguished scientists who spend a year at the institute, thinking, researching, writing papers and interacting with others of their caliber. Each of the 200 scholars receives a salary commensurate with his or her current earnings and housing is provided.

Scholars From All Over World

A small nucleus of scholars remains for several years, as Einstein did, becoming part of the permanent faculty of 22.

"Scholars come here from the great centers of learning throughout the world. Most Nobel Prize winners have been here," said Harry Woolf, 63, who has been institute director for the past 10 years. Woolf is one of the authors and editor of "Some Strangeness in the Proportion," a book about Einstein's accomplishments.

"The institute operates on the premise that science and learning transcend national boundaries," Woolf said. "Scholars and scientists are members of one republic of the spirit. Here they examine new and centrally important questions as they arise at the frontiers of knowledge."

There is no formal curriculum and no degrees are awarded.

"Nothing is required," Woolf said. "They have a year of freedom to explore ideas, to interact with one another in an atmosphere where the mind is working at the highest level. We have no scientific laboratories. Their work is not published here. Our contribution to society is like yeast. The bread gets baked elsewhere."

Near Princeton Campus

Scattered throughout the world in practically every major university are 3,300 alumni of the stimulating intellectual community.

The Institute for Advanced Study occupies a square mile embraced by forests and meadows. It is near the Princeton campus, enjoying a close academic and intellectual relationship even though it is administratively separate.

Included in the institute complex are 10 buildings, mainly studies, libraries, administrative and faculty offices, common rooms, computer centers, a lounge, a dining hall where luncheons and twice-weekly dinners are served and garden apartments.

The apartments are assigned by family size. All faculty members receive the same pay regardless of age or years of tenure.

"We have a marvelous egalitarian system here," observed Woolf, the fifth director. Flexner served until 1939; Frank Aydelotte, 1939-47; J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1947-66, and Carl Kaysen, 1966-75.

Studies Always Open

Libraries and studies are available around the clock. Many of the scholars do their best work in the middle of the night.

The current institute budget is $13 million, with 65% coming from its endowment and the rest from visiting scholars' own institutions, from private foundations, the U.S. government and foreign governments. About one-fourth of the scholars come from other countries.

There are four schools at the Institute for Advanced Study: mathematics, natural sciences, historic studies and social science.

There is a balance of senior scholars with well-established reputations and younger scholars four or five years after earning their Ph.D.'s.

It was a brother and sister, Louis Bamberger and Caroline Bamberger Fuld, who established the Institute for Advanced Study "to repay America for our success."

They Found Flexner

They owned the Bamberger department store chain that they sold in 1929 just before the crash. Childless, they decided to establish a university with their fortune.

"They looked around for someone to guide them and they found Abraham Flexner, a leading educator, who told them 'The world does not need another university,' " Woolf said.

It was Flexner who initiated formation of the institute and became its first director.

The founders insisted there never be any discrimination by race, religion or sex in the appointments to the faculty and staff or selection of visiting scholars.

"It is a great honor to be here. This is the best place for pure math in the whole world. We follow in the footsteps of Albert Einstein and many of the top scientists of the last 53 years," said Dragan Milicic, 37, of Yugoslavia, a math professor at the University of Utah before coming here.

'Very Exciting Place'

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