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Nuts and Supernuts in the One True Platonic Heaven : WHO GOT EINSTEIN'S OFFICE? Eccentricity and Genius at the Institute for Advanced Study by Ed Regis (Addison-Wesley: $17.95; 336 pp.)

September 13, 1987|Malcolm C. MacPherson | MacPherson, whose most recent book is "Time Bomb: Fermi, Heisenberg and the Race for the Atomic Bomb" (Dutton), resides in Aspen, Colo.

Ed Regis' genuinely inspired and perfectly joyous "Who Got Einstein's Office?" confirms beyond a doubt what anyone ever suspected about the inhabitants of the loftiest Ivory Towers, in this instance, the elite of one of America's most august scientific institutions, which the author calls "The One True Platonic Heaven," and what the world knows as The Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, N.J. What sets out to be a chronicle of the Institute since its well-heeled incorporation in 1930, in the hands of a wry and acute observer of the oddball condition and a science writer with a genius for bulldozing through dark thickets of scientific mumbo-jumbo, ends up almost magically as a barometric reading of the state (of the art) of science.

Welcome to the Monkey House, which down through the years has been tagged "an intellectual hotel," "a nirvana for eggheads," "a modern Utopia," and, if you miss the point, "an intellectual Garden of Eden." None of the sobriquets does the place justice, if Regis' book is a guide. The Institute for Advanced Study was funded (by the dry-goods mogul Louis Bamberger and his sister Caroline Fuld) and founded by Abraham Flexner, an educational gadfly who eventually lost his marbles trying to cope with the egomaniacal, willful professors whom he hired, with the noble purpose to attend to the corporeal needs of its members "to such a degree that the only conceivable remaining activity was thinking," according to the author. (It did so well at this, its very first professor, Albert Einstein, wrote letters with the return address, "Concentration Camp, Princeton.") Not all scientists needed apply. The Institute was meant for purists, or "High Lonesomenesses," as the author calls the most ethereal practitioners of mathematics, particle physics, astrophysics and the like who dwell in the nether galaxies of pure ideas for the sake of little besides purity itself. Or so Mr. Regis seems to imply in this carefully structured, wittily written history.

Only heretics, under conditions of absolute Platonic purity set-down at the Institute, dared to callous their hands on and sully their minds with such machinery as cyclotrons and telescopes. (Computers in present times seem to be the Institute's only admissible hardware. Before their arrival, the heaviest equipment were blackboards and stalks of chalk.) And at first, along with Einstein came Kurt Godel, who was to logic and math what Einstein was to physics. Godel suited the Platonic mold even better than his immediate predecessor, and while he did wear socks and didn't play the violin, Godel truly established the Institute as a home for oddballs ever after. What a brilliant description of Godel and his works. In this case, as in all other descriptions in the book, the author mercifully avoids serving up indigestible fodder, clearly and succinctly reducing complicated theories and phenomenon to the understandable without pandering. And quite a trick it is too, to describe without once losing the reader the seminal works of Godel and Einstein, Bohr, Max von Laue, I. I. Rabi, Frank Yang, T. D. Lee, Oppenheimer, Freeman Dyson, P. A. M. Dirac and Wolfgang Pauli, along with many lesser and greater, newer and dimmer lights who stayed for a while or their whole careers at "The One True Platonic Heaven." In the process, Regis, a contributor to Omni magazine and a professor of philosophy at Howard University, reveals himself to be a science writer of the first magnitude.

After describing what he calls "The Priesthood of the Cosmos" (i.e. Einstein, Godel and some of the younger, present-day mathematical researchers of such oddments as "transcendentals," a number which isn't the root of any polynomial), you get the idea that the Institute is the Wild Kingdom of Wheel Spinning. The author quotes one math brain as saying, "In any field there is this pressure on you to publish papers, and--you know--if you happen to get some results, even if they say something strange about some objects that may be of no obvious interest, you want to publish in someplace." Another present-day researcher explores Mandelbrot fractals (geometrical objects whose contours are irregular and spidery no matter what their scale) because "they are beautiful in their own right."

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