A Resort for Geniuses: Boon or Bust?


Who Got Einstein's Office? Eccentricity and Genius at the Institute for Advanced Study, by Ed Regis, Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 336 pages, $17.95

Over the years, I have known a few people who inherited so much money at an early age that they have never had to work a day in their lives and never will. Sounds pretty good, right? Well, in their cases, at least, the money has been, shall we say, a mixed blessing. Freed of the pressure to put food on their tables, clothes on their backs, and roofs over their heads, these people have not done much of anything. For many people, it seems, the need to work is beneficial.

And so it is, apparently, at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, created more than 50 years ago by New Jersey's Bamberger department store family as a place for the greatest minds to go and think, unencumbered by many of life's demands. Not only would they be well paid, there would be no requirements put on them. No students, no classes, no publishing, nothing. Just do your own thing.

Who Got Einstein's Office? is Ed Regis's delightful popular history of the institute and its people, full of vignettes and anecdotes and a fair amount of theoretical physics, a book that says reams about the personalities of scientists and the sociology of science. It is a sympathetic book, but ultimately Regis asks whether the results of this experiment in genius have really been all that grand, and he concludes that the reality has been somewhat less than the promise.

This is the place that Albert Einstein settled in when he came to America in 1933 as the institute's first professor and where he spent the last two decades of his life. Unfortunately, Einstein's greatest work was 20 years behind him when he arrived at the institute, and he never did important physics again.

Saying this is to take nothing away from Einstein's extraordinary accomplishments as a young man but simply to note that no one continues to do work at that level for a lifetime. Newton himself, after inventing both physics and calculus, became master of the Royal Mint and made no further contributions to science.

So it appears to be at the Institute for Advanced Study, where only people who have made stunning contributions to physics, mathematics, and one of several social sciences are invited to join the faculty, whereupon many of them promptly disappear. To be sure, John Von Neumann did his important work on computers at the institute in the 1940s, and Kurt Gödel, who had already shaken the foundations of mathematics before getting to the institute, worked on the so-called continuum problem of infinities after he got there, and there have been contributions to superstring theory in recent years. But considering the powerhouse of intellectual talent holed up at the institute, these developments are notable for their rarity. There should be many more of them.

Regis asks, "If the Institute is not more successful than any other academic institution in getting its faculty to produce original, high-quality work, if its own members can't decide if the place is a boon or a bust, then what in the world is its reason for being? Why does it exist at all? Is it no more and no less than a motel, an intellectual resort where burnt-out scholars go for a vacation…or to reap their final reward for having been geniuses in their youth? Is the Institute the place where shy and retiring theorists can go to eat intellectual candy and play with their intellectual toys?"

Regis, a professor of philosophy at Howard University and a very able science writer, doesn't quite say that he agrees with those rhetorical questions, but he certainly gives them a lot of thought. He is not altogether persuaded that allowing geniuses to be free of earthly cares is the way to get them to do stellar work. Genius is still a very quirky and unpredictable trait.

But Regis's book gives us a wonderful look at many important geniuses, and he skillfully covers a wide breadth of subjects for interested general readers. He has a good sense of what level is appropriate for explaining theoretical physics.

He also touches on questions in the philosophy of science, which has practitioners at the institute, though they and the scientists about whom they philosophize have little intellectual or social contact. Thomas Kuhn, whose book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions caused a paradigm shift in our understanding of what science is, is now a member of the institute, splitting his time with Princeton University down the road (an institution completely separate from the institute).

All of this is well served up by Regis, so that his book is a survey of recent science and scientists and their great intellectual endeavor to find things out, which is one of civilization's highest achievements. And, in case you're interested, on page 41 Regis spills the beans. After Einstein's death in 1955, Bengt Strömgren, a Danish astronomer, moved into his office for 10 years, and it is now occupied by Arne Beurling, a mathematician.

Lee Dembart is an editorial writer and book reviewer specializing in science at the Los Angeles Times.