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Off the Path from New York to Boston

Off the Path — Garden State: The Institute Of 'Useless Knowledge'

Reporter Davis Dunavin, after drawing some cartoon characters on the chalkboard in Albert Einstein's office.
Davis Dunavin
/
WSHU Public Radio
Reporter Davis Dunavin, after drawing some cartoon characters on the chalkboard in Albert Einstein's office.

The address for the Institute for Advanced Study is 1 Einstein Drive, named after undoubtedly the most famous scientist to work here.

The campus lies amid sprawling green meadows, oak trees and a peaceful pond. I walk up to the front door and a deer trots right past me. I’m only a few miles from downtown Princeton, but it feels remote and pastoral.

That’s by design, according to the institute’s director Robbert Dijkgraaf. This is a place of peace and quiet, free of all the distractions of modern life.

“It’s like the center of a hurricane, where there is no wind,” he says. “It’s very silent. It’s a place of concentration. People are looking inward. But people, in their minds of course, are having tremendous adventures.”

A bust of Albert Einstein, the institute's most famous member, stands in a foyer where scholars meet for afternoon tea.
Credit Davis Dunavin / WSHU Public Radio
A bust of Albert Einstein, the institute's most famous member, stands in a foyer where scholars meet for afternoon tea.

The Institute for Advanced Study doesn’t have any students or classes. There’s no regular daily agenda full of meetings and conferences. The scholars here don’t even have to research any specific topic. They could spend their whole day walking the grounds or sitting by the lake.

“Whatever you do, it’s something you choose to do,” Dijkgraaf says. “People are really refreshed when they spend some time here. They have different thoughts, they have deeper thoughts. Often they come here with a specific project in mind, and then decide to do something much more interesting.”

Education reformer Abraham Flexner founded the institute — with help from the Bamberger family and their department-store fortune. He wanted a place dedicated to useless knowledge — his term. He argued for it in his 1939 essay, “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.”

“I am pleading for the abolition of the word ‘use,’ and for the freeing of the human spirit,” Flexner wrote. “To be sure, we shall thus free some harmless cranks. To be sure, we shall thus waste some precious dollars. But what is infinitely more important is that we shall be striking the shackles off the human mind.”

Director Dijkgraaf wrote an update of Flexner’s essay on "Useless Knowledge."

“It expresses the fact that the pieces of research, knowledge that have the biggest impact on our lives started from free exploration of the world without any application in mind,” he says.

The wooded campus of the Institute for Advanced Study.
Credit Davis Dunavin / WSHU Public Radio
The wooded campus of the Institute for Advanced Study.

Flexner had another goal. In the early 1930s, Europe was the center of the scientific world. He wanted the United States to make an impact, too. So he reached out to his contacts at European universities for help, like Albert Einstein.

“Right around that time, in 1933, when he started to recruit faculty, the situation in Europe changed dramatically,” Dijkgraaf says. “Einstein had to leave his country. He was a refugee.”

Einstein was Jewish — like many of Europe’s greatest scientists. They all needed a way out as the Nazis took control first of Germany, then most of Europe.

“In fact this became something of an Ellis Island for scholars, who often would come here with very small grants just to get them out of the country,” Dijkgraaf says.

One example was the logician Kurt Gödel — Einstein’s best friend, and one of history’s greatest minds in his own right. Gödel arrived in the U.S. with just a few thousand dollars in grant money to pay his way. The institute took in physicists and mathematicians, but also archaeologists, historians, economists and more.

“Looking back, historians will say this is the moment where the center of gravity, intellectual center of gravity, moves across the Atlantic,” Dijkgraaf says.

Most scientists weren’t household names, but some left a mark on the world that rivaled Einstein’s. Like John von Neumann — a Hungarian Jew who fled Germany in 1933.

“He did so many different things that you might imagine they are all different people,” Dijkgraaf says. “It’s often said that he was the smartest person who lived in the 20th century. And I think actually, he was — it’s difficult to say, but he was really smarter than Einstein.”

Von Neumann was a towering figure in mathematics, economics, physics, you name it. He was one of the pioneers of game theory and he designed nuclear weapons for the Manhattan Project. But he achieved maybe his most lasting accomplishment at the institute.

“He built, actually here, the first modern computer — the Von Neumann Architecture,” Dijkgraaf says. “He didn’t patent it. He sent blueprints all around the world. That’s like everything we carry from our phones to our digital watches, they have the Von Neumann Architecture.”

A primitive computer built by John von Neumann, on display in the institute's archives.
Credit Davis Dunavin / WSHU Public Radio
A primitive computer built by John von Neumann, on display in the institute's archives.

The institute still has Von Neumann’s primitive computer in its archives — or at least a small piece of it. The full machine weighs half a ton. Archivist Caitlin Rizzo shows me a strange metal contraption in a glass case.

“You can see a lot of the actual screws holding things together — gasket, wire,” she says. “And a lot of rusted metal on this piece. We can see some actual circuits and wiring holding the computer together.”

Von Neumann didn’t worry much about how it looked.

“One of the neat things about the early computers is everything is so exposed and so immediate,” Rizzo says. “So what becomes small and falls and folds in the back of your computer today is kind of out and proud.”

Von Neumann built that computer in the 1940s. Countless great thinkers passed through the institute’s doors since then, including Freeman Dyson and Robert Oppenheimer — he actually ran the institute in the ’50s.

“All of society is lacking this, the free space,” says Dijkgraaf. “If you’re a scientist or a scholar, you have your grant applications, you have committee meetings. Sitting at lunch, having a wonderful conversation about your field that lasts for like three hours — I think these moments are rare.”

But, he says, the history of the Institute for Advanced Study is full of those kinds of moments — and he thinks they’ve changed the world.