Institute for Advanced Study

Aerial view of a college campus.
Institute for Advanced Study campus, taken from the air. Hanno Rein (Creative Commons license)

The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, is one of those names that comes up frequently in the study of twentieth century intellectual life. Though its most famous resident was Albert Einstein, who worked at the Institute from 1933 to his death in 1955, he was not the only prominent scientist and intellectual to grace the Institute's campus, and their reputation for excellence in mathematical innovation is even more impressive than their reputation among the physical sciences.

Founding of the Institute

American educator Abraham Flexner founded the Institute for Advanced Study in 1930, with funds provided by the Bamberger siblings (Louis Bamberger and Caroline Bamberger Fuld), who were seeking to philanthropically donate the proceeds from the sale of their New York department store. With funding secured, Flexner joined forces with Princeton University mathematician Oswald Veblen to recruit imminent mathematicians and physicists to join the Institute's faculty. It appears to have been at Veblen's urging that Flexner chose the location of Princeton, New Jersey, for the Institute.

In 1939, Flexner wrote an article for Harper's magazine called "The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge," where he made the observation that: 

... throughout the whole history of science most of the really great discoveries which had ultimately proved to be beneficial to mankind have been made by men and women who were driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity.

He spends much of the article going through historical examples to support this observation about the nature of scientific discoveries to benefit mankind. His conclusion draws a direct line between this observation and his hopes and dreams for the Institute:

We make ourselves no promises, but we cherish the hope that the unobstructed pursuit of useless knowledge will prove to have consequences in the future as the past.

Institute's Rapid Growth

Their recruitment efforts were aided by the growth of fascism throughout Europe, which meant that many physicists (particularly Jewish ones) were seeking to relocate away from Europe at the time, and the United States was seen as an excellent alternative. This is how the Institute was able to bring Einstein over in 1933. They also brought the German mathematician and physicist Hermann Weyl, whose wife was Jewish, and who secured a position for Austrian-Hungarian mathematician John von Neumann as a condition of his own employment. Indeed, within just a few years, the Institute was led by a handful of the most prominent and accomplished mathematicians in the world, and it was seen as a world leader in the field of mathematical research, a title that had previously been centered in a Europe now becoming ravaged by war.

Though the Institute began operation in 1933, they initially did not have their own facilities. From 1933 to 1939, the Institute met in Fine Hall on the Princeton University campus, which is the building that housed the Princeton University Mathematics Department. In 1939, the Institute's own Fuld Hall was built on their own land, and they relocated their work to independent facilities.

Despite this, there has always been a strong collaborative spirit between Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study. The proximity in location has led many to believe that the Institute was directly and formally connected to Princeton University, but it is not.

(Full disclosure: Until researching this article, I too thought that the Institute was formally part of the Princeton University campus, just as the Niels Bohr Institute is part of the University of Copenhagen. I'm going through and correcting that now, but if you find an inconsistency, I fully apologize for the erroneous connection drawn.)

Today, the Institute has about 30 permanent faculty members, and brings offers fellowships to about 200 visiting members, drawing from over 100 universities and other organizations from around the world.

Though largely affiliated with physics and mathematics, the Institute contains four schools focusing on different areas of academic interest:

  • Historical Studies
  • Mathematics
  • Natural Sciences
  • Social Sciences

You can find out How to Apply for one of the fellowship positions on the IAS website.

Physics Nobels and the Institute

Because of the prestigious reputation of the Institute for Advanced Study, many prominent physicists (and physicists seeking to become prominent) have sought to spend their time there. It isn't hard to realize that most physicists would seek to follow in Einstein's footsteps to whatever degree they could, and walking the same streets that he walked is about as literal as you can come to that. 

A total of 33 Nobel laureates, across the various disciplines, have been affiliated with the Institute. Affiliated intellectuals have also included 41 Fields Medal winners (out of 56 total winners) and winners of other awards, such as the Wolf and McArthur prizes.

The Nobel Prize laureates in Physics who have spent time working at the Institute, either before or after receiving the Nobel, include the following:

  • Max von Laue, 1914 Nobel Prize in Physics
  • Albert Einstein, 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics
  • Niels Bohr, 1922 Nobel Prize in Physics
  • Paul Dirac, 1933 Nobel Prize in Physics
  • Isidor Isaac Rabi, 1944 Nobel Prize in Physics
  • Wolfgang Pauli, 1945 Nobel Prize in Physics
  • Hideki Yukawa, 1949 Nobel Prize in Physics
  • Tsung-Dao Lee, 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics
  • Chen Ning Yang, 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics
  • Johannes Hans Daniel Jensen, 1963 Nobel Prize in Physics
  • Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics
  • Murray Gell-Mann, 1969 Nobel Prize in Physics
  • Leon Cooper, 1973 Nobel Prize in Physics
  • Aage Bohr, 1975 Nobel Prize in Physics
  • Abdus Salam, 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics
  • Kenneth Wilson, 1982 Nobel Prize in Physics
  • Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, 1983 Nobel Prize in Physics
  • Jack Steinberger, 1988 Nobel Prize in Physics
  • Gerardus 't Hooft, 1999 Nobel Prize in Physics
  • David Gross, 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics
  • Frank Wilczek, 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics
  • Roy Glauber, 2005 Nobel Prize in Physics
  • Yoichiro Nambu, 2008 Nobel Prize in Physics
  • Saul Perlmutter, 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics

For a full list of Nobel laureates across all disciplines, or the details on when the above physicists were affiliated with the Institute for Advanced Study, check out this source document.