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Who Got Einstein's Office? Eccentricity and Genius at the Institute for Advanced Study.

Who Got Einstein's Office? Eccentricity and Genius at the Institute for Advanced Study. Ed Regis, Addison-Wesley, $17.95. Had anyone suggested a year ago that generalinterest books, by and about theoretical physicists would become wildly popular, the response would undoubtedly have been, "Surely you're joking." That changed when "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman," a humorous autobiographical work by Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, hit The New York Times's best-seller list. It wasn't the only one. Chaos, by James Gleick, made the best-seller list earlier this year; Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time entered its 29th week on the list in midNovember, at which time it was ranked number one. Regis's new work therefore has a well-tested market.

The book is a history of the Institute for Advanced Study, the private research institute founded in 1930 by Caroline Bamberger Fuld and her brother, Louis Bamberger, in Princeton, New Jersey. Not many people were in a position to make large philanthropic donations that year, but the Bambergers had just sold their highly profitable department store the summer before (they received their $25 million, much of it in cash, six weeks before Black Thursday). The Bambergers hoped the institute would be a haven where a select group of natural scientists, mathematicians, social scientists, and historians would spend their days thinking great thoughts, unmolested by the outside world. That has also meant unmolested by teaching (the institute has never conferred degrees); unmolested by grant-writing (a permanent member's salary today is about $90,000); and even unmolested by other institute members (there have been remarkably few collaborations at the institute).

The problem is that, after they arrive, the institute's great thinkers often stop producing great thoughts. One gets the impression that the institute hasn't been an "intellectual hotel" so much as a rest-home for geniuses. The first permanent member was Alber Einstein, whose fame was unrivaled, but whose best work was already behind him. Other geniuses followed. Kurt Godel, the mathematician popularized in Douglas Hofstadter's Godel, Escher Bach, came to the institute in 1940, but after his permanent appointment in 1953, he virtually stopped publishing. Not everyone fell asleep at the wheel. Wolfgang Pauli did important work on particle physics there. (Pauli won the Nobel prize for his exclusion principle, a theory that, among other things, explains why a table, or any piece of matter, doesn't just collapse-matter is, after all, mostly empty space.) One explanation for the institute's lack of brainy breakthroughs may be that its scholars usually don't become prominent enough to deserve appointments until they're old-and perhaps burned out. But Regis also raises the theory, advanced by others, that the institute's very isolation is the cause of this sloth; that is, given no outside stimulation, a person doesn't concentrate harder, he dozes off. As one of Orson Welles's characters put it, "Switzerland had 500 years of peace and all they produced was the cuckoo clock." Anyone who has tried to "get ahead" on work at the beginning of a long vacation will understand the problem.

Along with the biography, there is also a decent amount of science in this book, explained in a clever and patient way that tells the by-now-curious reader what these people have actual ly thought about. The reader won't come out knowing all there is to know about the partial width of the cross section of semileptonic vector meson decay, but he will get enough to satisfy his curiosity, while keeping his attention. Regis's scientific judgments aren't always as good as his explanations-he implies that Rober Oppenheimer ("the father of the atomic bomb") was as important to experimental physics as Pauli was to theoretical physics (a dubious assertion) -but that takes little away from the book.

It would be nice to believe that the current physics vogue stems from a genuine interest in science. But the oooh-aaah tone of many of the recent releases suggests the fascination is with celebrity -the idea of genius, not the ideas of geniuses. The scientists we meet spend a lot of time trading clever quips with their Nobel laureate colleagues and flying around to sexy places like Switzerland, to check on the particle accelerator, or Sweden, to pick up The Prize. How nice that this work shows a genuine interest in ideas.

As to the question posed by the title, you'll have to read the book.

-Micholas Martin
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Author:Martin, Nicholas
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Bibliography
Date:Dec 1, 1988
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