This past week was the inauguration of Harvard University’s Black Hole Initiative. Stephen Hawking gave a lecture, media was gathered, and millions of dollars committed. A mural was also unveiled, full of fantastical dust swirls, particle jets, and an interstellar bottle carrying Einstein’s equations.
The painter, Robbert Dijkgraaf, happened to know the equations already, from his day job: string theorist at, and director of, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, and Kurt Gödel hung their hats at the storied institution, back in the day. Einstein’s grand piano even sits in Dijkgraaf’s living room—“just to be able to touch it is magic,” he says.
Keenly aware of the historical weight of the Institute and his position in it, Dijkgraaf serves both as a physicist and as a public figure. Painting isn’t his only extracurricular: A former president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, he is a regular fixture on Dutch television, and is deeply interested in science education, policy, and outreach.
He sat down with Nautilus on the campus of the Institute this April.
The video interview plays at the top of the screen.
If nature had a human personality, what would it be?
I think it’s part of being a scientist to understand the character of nature. For instance, even if you’re a theoretical physicist, you would describe certain mathematical equations to describe natural phenomena. Or, how does nature let herself be captured? And then you just notice that the specific kind of mathematics or the specific kind of reasoning is very effective. Nature seems to, for instance, make use of the concept of symmetry, left and right. So you start thinking well, she likes symmetry; or you know, there’s a lot of randomness in nature. Okay, she likes randomness. You try to guess the personality and of course if you see certain patterns in one corner then it’s very likely that the same patterns will emerge somewhere else. I think it’s reasonable to understand nature as one big phenomena. There’s a unity in natural phenomena. I don’t think that nature has multiple personalities.
There’s this famous saying by Albert Einstein, “Subtle is the Lord, but malicious he is not.” In fact, when Princeton University built its math department in 1929, that quote in German was engraved on the fireplace and I think it exactly captures what many, many physicists feel—that nature is gracious in the sense [that] she allows her secrets to be discovered, but you have to do it in a very subtle way. If you have a coarse-grained approach with heavy machinery then it doesn’t work. You have to be resonating with the very subtle mathematical notions and sometimes you get big surprises. I think nobody ever would have predicted that, for instance, probability is fundamental to how nature works. That’s what we learn through quantum mechanics. I think many centuries of introspection would never come up with the idea of quantum mechanics; that was forced upon us. It was also a great loss, the loss of determinism, the loss of being able to visualize in a simple way what nature is, what reality is. It’s like a subtle taste, an acquired taste, but then you start to appreciate it and then you certainly realize “wow, this is an incredibly powerful way to hang together!” So in that sense you feel you’re reading the mind of your opponent. Like in a chess game.
I find it absolutely amazing, if you, say, go back 100 years and just look around you, what do you see? Any material, we had no idea why it had particular properties. Just how we see things, how light gets produced, reflected; how the sun works—all of that was unknown. And now 100 years later, through quantum mechanics, through nuclear physics, through our study of radiation and matter—even to the elementary particles—we have this almost complete description in as fine detail as you want to get, within 100 years with in some sense, minimal effort. Not that many scientists, physicists, worked on these problems and 100 years is a very short time, seen in the larger context. So then you almost have to conclude that nature was kind of willing to engage in this conversation and help us, steer us, to kind of an understanding—significant understanding; which is, after you have invested the efforts to understand that language, which is math, it’s very beautiful and it’s very elegant and it’s simple. Everything I see around is being described by not more than 17 different kinds of particles. Most of them are actually insignificant to what we see. It’s a handful of particles, governed by laws that can easily fit if you use the right mathematics on a single line. Now there was no guarantee 100 years ago that this would be the answer so I think it’s a remarkable achievement for us humans, but it’s also a very powerful statement about what the nature of reality is—that it can be described in such an elegant way.
Could nature have been chaotic and disjointed?
Yes, it’s conceivable and in fact, it might even be true in the sense that now, if you look at nature and ask “so where does it simplify?” It typically simplifies at two ends of the spectrum; so either at the very small—so the building blocks have simple rules, even like atoms or molecules and then you build out huge complex machines, like living organisms or the universe as a whole—and there’s another part where it simplifies at the very large distances. So for instance, my favorite example is, take a glass of water. If you want to describe that glass of water in terms of the movements of all these molecules, billions and billions of them, it’s totally intractable. No computer could ever do this. But now I can describe a glass of water. I can give its properties; it’s transparent, it has a certain temperature. It has a certain consistency. I can describe the fluid mechanics with a few simple lines. They, of course, don’t perfectly capture water—not at the level of individual molecules—but what you see is that you have something very simple, a single molecule; then you add more and it gets more complex and complex and complex and at some point starts to simplify again and then new laws of nature emerge out of that complexity. In this case, for instance, the laws of thermodynamics. So there is a kind of a twisted view that even these elementary particles that we see might be not the beginning of something but might be the end and might be something that’s emerging out of something different, which might be again, chaotic, so who knows?
Where is the contradiction between gravity and quantum mechanics?
The contradiction is that gravity cannot work in a theory of quantum mechanics. Basically, in quantum mechanics you think, there are probabilistic events or things that are coming out of nowhere and if you combine that with the laws of gravity then they just burn down. It’s impossible; and there are a lot of intuitive ways to understand this. Perhaps if you can have small fluctuations in gravity, little black holes can be formed. Black holes suck up space and time, but what do you mean by space and time? A lot of conceptual problems.
Another big conceptual problem is that in quantum mechanics, you have time just going on and on and on, while in cosmology time was born in the Big Bang. So the Big Bang, black holes are points of crises; the actual points, you can point to certain areas in time and space in the universe where you know all of this breaks down. Clearly the universe found a way to deal with it. It’s not breaking down. You’re still living here and so nature found a solution to this, and I think that gives us hope.
We also know that these theories have to come together but if you for instance go to the very early universe, take something very large—the whole universe—which has to be described by relativity theory and you make it very small—because at that time it was very small and very hot—it has to be described according to the laws of quantum mechanics. We know there were certain phases in the history of the universe where both principles were operating at the same time. They somehow got along and probably in a very productive way. One thing we have learned, and for me that’s one of the most amazing facts and I hope it’s true—but perhaps the most important question, philosophical question, people ask about the universe is why is there something instead of nothing? Why are we here? And in standard cosmology that’s not obvious because you can start with something, just a little bit of matter, but how does it get little clumps that in some point become stars and planets and organisms? You need somebody to seat that history and the wonderful thing is that quantum mechanics with its small fluctuations, the fact that it’s not really behaving, it’s always like wiggling a little bit—is the perfect mechanism to produce these little wiggles that started off the whole thing. We can already see at a coarse-grained level that it’s extremely productive to bring the two theories together because it might answer this most fundamental question, “Why are we here.”
Why is the nature of time such a central issue for theoretical physics?
I think somehow the most basic question we have these days is understanding the nature of time. We went through many revolutions with relativity, with quantum mechanics, but time in some sense is still kind of old fashioned. It’s the bookkeeping device that we use, in science in general, to make predictions; science is about predicting the future. You understand the world as it is now and then you start to calculate and make a prediction.
On the other hand, we know that time has these very bizarre properties, that it apparently can be created in the Big Bang, and if you think about black holes, time actually stops. So our concept of time might be too naïve and I’m personally very interested in whether or not we can use some of our ideas that we have seen in other areas. For instance, we have been able to make sense of space in a more significant way. Perhaps the greatest breakthrough during the last 20 years was actually by Juan Maldacena—he’s here at the Institute too—who showed that in certain physical systems, space can emerge out of it naturally. The physical system doesn’t have space but in certain limits, certain space comes out and relativity comes out. So there’s something more fundamental than space, something more fundamental than Einstein’s equations.
Now you might think that this also works for time but time is always different. It has a completely different role than space. Now I can move up and down in space. I can’t move up and down in time. I’m actually frozen now in a certain moment in time. I have to go through each time; I can’t see my whole history at once. I can see my whole body at once, so it’s a very asymmetric experience. You can try to use string theory and other theoretical ideas; you can play any of these games with time that we have been playing with space. I think it’s somehow absolutely crucial because the really big open questions are still all tied in, in a new or improved way of looking at time and I think we all have basically kind of a gut intuition how it would work like that. So if you think about time as a river, you can say well, how do I think if I have a river and I go upstream, upstream, upstream; it becomes less volume and at some point you know. I get a little brook and perhaps you get a few little streams, and then what do you get? A few raindrops. So at some point the whole idea of the river disappears and there’s something else. Well here we know it’s H2O molecules or something. So I think all these efforts are finding something—what are the molecules of time? What are the bits of time?
Why are you confident that the great theories of physics can be unified?
I have great confidence that nature wants to be unified. Sometimes people joke, you know, human beings want to unify. They cannot you know. We are individuals and that’s why we project this on nature. But actually the story of the discovery of the laws of nature has been, over the last few centuries, one of unification—electromagnetism, the combination of electricity and magnetism, and then the nuclear forces. So we see not only that all these forces and particles are described by the same kind of mathematics, but they also actually fit in a pattern.
Now this could be just a very clever way for nature to misguide us, pretending that she likes unification and at some point you know taking a sharp turn to a completely different direction. But I think it’s not. If you look at all the hints that we have about how the world works at much smaller scales than we can explore at this moment, all the arrows seem to be pointing to a broader simple description in a handful of particles where these forces are coming together. Now, string theory is interesting in the sense that there is this kind of piece of mathematics that landed on our desk that’s able to do this, so there’s like a mathematical framework—very incomplete—that is able to combine the biggest, important ingredients—gravity, particle physics, quantum mechanics—together in a consistent way.
We have two facts: We have the fact that nature is working. It’s a machine that’s working, so apparently nature is able to combine all the ingredients in a way that it doesn’t break down. And then we have some of these mathematical pieces in our possession that seem to do the same thing. So the question is: Is this the right answer? Or is this perhaps a part of the right answer—which is my gut feeling more—that in some sense, in a few decades, we will have a very different view of what we are now calling string theory where the parts that we know now are just a few pieces of the puzzle and perhaps the majority of the pieces still have to come. I would be extremely disappointed if we have come so far in capturing reality in terms of mathematical equations that certainly that whole enterprise breaks down and we have to give up. I think actually it’s very unlikely.
How do we know when mathematical unification is physically meaningful?
I think here you would just look at the experimental evidence. So we see that like in mathematics, it has many different islands. Of course, there is going to be a unified sense of what mathematics is but a kind of “concept” is sometimes quite different. You can study numbers, number theory, or you can study geometry.
Now there are a few instances where people find bridges between the two. Often the way it’s described is as a dictionary. It’s like you find a kind of Rosetta stone; certainly you find that some of the ideas in one language can be translated into the other language and that means that there is a certain connection between the two. Now the way I think about it—my favorite metaphor—is thinking about say, the earth in terms of maps. There are two ways to describe the Earth: One is like an atlas. In an atlas, you have many, many maps and there’s some indication of how you go from one map to the other. You have a map of the United States and a map of Mexico, but you know that the southern part of one is the northern of the other, and you look at it and hey, I can go over! It’s not obvious with something like a globe, which is one object that captures all these different maps.
I think for physics, it’s different because we know that it’s like one reality. There is just the world that we live in. Well, we never know. It could be that we never see the equivalent of this three-dimensional sphere and we just always have to work with these little maps—a map of quantum mechanics, a map of gravity, and perhaps other maps. I think the fact that there is a single reality that we’re living in is strong experimental evidence. I think in mathematics, even in the cases when there are these Rosetta stones, we have very few examples where there is a unifying object. Remarkably, actually, just looking in the intellectual history of the last few decades, the few really powerful examples where mathematical fields were unified were actually with the application of quantum physics; so it’s actually the physicists that say wait a moment, the two things that you’re doing, they belong together. Because you think of this as geometry and you think of this as number theory or as probability theory, but quantum mechanics is a great framework. In fact, there’s a very beautiful reason why and the fundamental principle of quantum mechanics is that basically everything happens.
There’s this beautiful phrase of “sum over histories”—so we think that we live our lives from A to B according to a certain path. Quantum mechanics says yes, that is only true, in an approximation. What really is true, is that all possible paths are possible; some are more likely than others and if you really want to calculate you have to sum all these paths. Physics basically tells you, don’t look at an individual case; look at the whole family and that’s the unifying description.
Now this is a very foreign concept in mathematics. It used to be a very foreign concept in mathematics. Mathematicians would look at one object at a time; so we take the sphere, we take out the donut, or you look at another beautiful space and you study that space. That’s your specialty and then these physicists come in, and say “no, no, no! I want to study the whole family at once!” It’s a very powerful principle but it’s actually a principle that comes out of the true nature of reality so I would say almost the opposite is happening. It’s physics that’s telling mathematicians that in certain cases they should expect that fields are two sides of one object and that we know exactly when this happening, namely when there is a physical interpretation to it.
When we get the ultimate theory of everything, will it fit on just one line?
I think it would be one line but it’s like you have to impact the line. Like Einstein’s equation of general relativity is not as famous; E=mc2, people understand that. For general relativity it’s more complicated and the reason is that, the symbols are easy—r, mu, nu—but then you have to explain what is this, r, mu, nu? Well it’s capturing the curvature of space and time, a four-dimensional geometry. And so Einstein himself had to schlep through all these geometry lessons and it took decades of mathematical sophistication to say you know what? If you have a curved space in any dimension, this is one mathematical object that captures everything and that’s just amazing. You can put it here, just one symbol. But you have to study a few years to understand what it’s capturing, how to unpack the information. So I think what we often see is that great complexity is condensed to simple symbols but the symbols are so charged because we crammed all of our knowledge into it; but they have a significance by themselves. The beautiful thing is that, what I will predict is that whenever we have that theory, the objects that will describe it have great significance independent of the fact that they describe nature. And that’s exactly true, that’s what happened in all of our other great theories. Einstein’s is a wonderful example, that the objects that he used were devised by mathematicians struggling with completely different questions and they found this most natural thing to write down and then nature uses that. So I think they will be “natural” in kind of two ways.
What attracts to you to painting?
Actually, the reason why I like painting so much is that in essence, it’s just about colors. It’s not about lines and shapes or geometry. It’s about colors and how they connect to each other, how they are in conversation and that just gives me incredible joy. I’m a very visual person. I actually have a very strong sense of color and I think it follows ... like playing music is similar. Painting for me is a very primitive pleasure because just the fact that you can take these colors that you usually see but you can manipulate them and play with them. I think that brings me great joy.
How do the experiences of doing painting and calculations compare?
Well, the difference between painting and doing calculations is that I think the moment you put a pencil on paper or you put paint on a canvas, from the very beginning, you are in unchartered territory because you will never make something that has been made before. And that’s different with calculations because in some sense, you stay much closer to shore. I think how all of us, scientists, do these kinds of analogs of sketches is, you take the familiar object and you kind of start to play with it, you write the equation, you write it in a different order, you combine it with an equation and you think it might have nothing to do with it, but let’s see what happens if I bring it in and then you hope that some magic happens. That looks different but I think actually if you think about it a little bit more, certainly for me, for painting I have certain images in my mind and I’m kind of combining these images and the moment you put them on paper, or on the canvas, then something happens in between. The two are kind of talking to each other and they might suggest a third ingredient. Also, I think in both cases, there is a mental image that precedes so I never start painting something before thinking about it and I have already, images in my mind and then, it’s a very incomplete and frustrating process to project them in actual reality because you’re totally failing. It’s very easy to do within your mind.
I think if you do physics thinking, it’s kind of similar. I don’t think anybody really thinks in terms of equations and formulas. You think in terms of concepts, you’re playing with it, and then you go get a piece of paper and try to do a calculation and then certainly, reality hits. You say well, that equation wasn’t so easy to manipulate. It doesn’t even want to go in this direction or something, or that’s just not working. I think it’s similar with art. You have a mental image, and then you start to do it and then it becomes this kind of horrible cartoon of the platonic image that you had in your mind, but then the nice thing is that that process by itself, it’s very frustrating. You immediately fail. But then in the failure, there might be the beginning of a next step because it might suggest some way to remedy the situation; and so I think that’s very similar.
Can you describe the moment of discovery in physics?
In any creative process, there’s always the very difficult middle part. So you start with some nice ideas and then it becomes complicated and then you start to give up hope and it looks horrible and you ask yourself, why am I doing this? I set myself up for this failure and then you hope that at some point it will crystallize and beauty and elegance will come out; but it’s no guarantee. It’s just kind of a bad painting or it could be just a bad idea in physics.
But the moment it does, which is very rare—and certainly for mortal physicists they might have this a few times in their lives, where you feel, “wait a moment now, it’s all coming together!”—and something happens that was not guaranteed and that sense of beauty and elation that’s there, I think that’s very similar to what you experience in art; that certainly, wow, it’s almost like too good to be true! I often feel that if you’re doing physics and you are lucky and you’re just working on the right equation, you have the right idea, then you don’t even have to work. The equation does its own work. It starts actually to come alive and it’s often smarter than you are because once all the elements fit together it suddenly starts to get its own life and say well, now I can also do this and that and that’s the downhill part of this mountain climb.
It’s a rare event so for me, I think it happens every decade once, or something, but if you really have a good idea, but that’s terrific. I think that’s why, certainly I think in science, we often feel that we are discovering something and not inventing because you notice this object, this idea, was already out there. You just kind of hit on it, perhaps even accidentally, and it’s so much bigger. I always have this image you know, of these archeologists, in the desert, and they would feel this little stone and they look at it and say wait a moment, that’s the tip of a pyramid or something. You were not looking for a pyramid—you were just looking for a stone—but oh, this goes on in all these directions! And that’s a terrific feeling. Wow, this will actually mean that many other people will be interested in this and they will even explore other parts; and it’s this kind of unraveling that’s extremely exciting.
How did you first get excited about science?
So I know very well when I was most happiest and I think I was around age 8 or 10. I really had a free-range childhood. We went to school, which was a very small school, and I had this friend. We both went to school and we went through the motion but at 3 o’clock when school was finished, life started. We would go either to his place or my place and we both had these attics full with stuff. It was doing drawings; it was doing scientific experiments. We even made a cartoon movie. We built all kinds of stuff, miniature, and it was like one big lab when I look back; and it was so natural.
Nobody told me this. Okay, I looked in an encyclopedia to see stuff, but most of it was homegrown and self-made. In some sense, I often go back to that period because for me, even my interests now, they are totally harmonious [with the past], but of course [then], it was a very small universe. It was like a two-person universe and it was kind of silly; it was a universe of a child—very, very simple concepts. But for me, it’s the germ that led to everything. I always feel that I can trace back whatever I did to these beginnings. My family were not scientists; his family were not scientists—far removed from it even, so that was created out of the natural interest that children have.
I remember that my dad was kind of a funny character because he was totally not technical in any way, but whenever he had a thing, a binocular or any machine, he would love to understand how it worked. So he would deconstruct it, but then he would not be able to reconstruct it again so we had all these boxes that said “binoculars” with little pieces of it. I think I remember we totally remade—totally pitch dark, and we had a little space and the sunlight was going in and then putting these prisms and of course we were creating a rainbow, lenses, and it was just magical because you see these huge … you know you’re 8 years old, you’re holding the rainbow in your hand. It’s kind of a feeling of empowerment and it almost comes back to my interest in art; you see these colors in the most purest form. You can manipulate it and you start trying things out. You put lenses in different orders and it’s not that I immediately went to the library to get a book about optics, you know, who cared? You just want to build a microscope, build a telescope, try to do other funny stuff, which of course didn’t work. It was absolutely delightful.
I think John Wheeler phrased physics as magic without magic. It’s a magical phenomenon but you’re not being tricked. It’s the real thing. You’re kind of unveiling the magic that’s in the world and it’s kind of remarkable that we all see colors. Any child is amazed to see the rainbow but the simple fact of putting a little prism in a beam of light and seeing the colors—I would really like to know how many 8-year-olds have seen this? Perhaps because their parents brought them to a science museum or they had a very good teacher. It’s the most primitive thing. Perhaps a 4-year-old should see this and it’s no work at all. I feel, in some sense, we’re almost kind of shielding ourselves of that magic that’s out there.
Do you still think back often to those childhood experiences?
In many ways life adds a lot of extra weight. You’re traveling with all these suitcases or something but I think you have to go back. For me always in my life, it’s very important to go back to what’s the origin of your passion and I think of course you drift away at certain phases—you have to, other life intervenes, but you have to find your way back to this. It’s kind of this magical place and I think that it’s something that really drives me as a scientist, is this magical place where you can interact with the universe, or even bigger, if you’re a mathematician. It’s even the universe you can create yourself and you can go around, you can enjoy it, you can understand it, you can depict it, you can play with it, you can be emotionally touched by it. It has all these things together and for me the power is really how these things fit together. These are not isolated elements. I think you both enjoy the hard work in understanding a little piece of mathematics but then you also look at it and just enjoy the sheer beauty of it and then perhaps you want to even draw it or something, or just visualize it, and I think the very natural way forms one organic whole thing.
It’s somehow very cynical that what I enjoyed so much of being an 8-year-old, which was not uncommon, that now I have to go to the Institute for Advanced Study and be in this very privileged environment to relive that experience; so only there are we able to preserve something which is totally common in every child.
What was your experience with physics education in high school and college?
Now I was incredibly interested in science as a high school student. I was doing all kinds of stuff outside the school curriculum. I was doing quantum mechanics, relativity—wonderful, I could do it myself. I went to the university, certainly I had to do all these tests, and I had perfect scores—but you know what happened? I totally lost interest because after a year of work, what did you have? You had these scores—A, A, A. Okay that’s it. There’s nothing in your hand.
Then I went to art school and in art school it’s not about getting a perfect grade. It’s starting to explore. So you make sketches and I had such a good feeling, after a week of work I had a big pile of drawings and it was not a matter of whether these drawings were brilliant. They were not. Or whether they were original—they were not. But they were mine. I made it. I actually could see literally how much progress I made and for me that process was liberating because certainly, I felt, wait a moment, this is how I felt about physics when I was a high school student and trying to understand quantum mechanics on my own! I was doing little things. I actually was also making drawings because I found this beautiful—these solutions—and so for me, that moment, I started to feel again engaged with physics, but not as a field to get these perfect scores but [as] something that you could explore yourself. Then I made this vow that whenever I go back to physics—and I did—I wanted to have the same experience at the end of the week. I want to have a stack of calculations and these could be boring calculations. Actually, I could do something that’s already well known, but it would be mine, and I think that’s the thing that I feel so passionate about—that it’s very important that the knowledge that you absorb, you make it kind of your personal knowledge. You have your own way to do this.
People have a very wrong image of what science is. They think that we [scientists] are always doing the most complicated and the most new, and it’s even more complicated. No, no, no! We spend a lot of time thinking about old stuff, what’s space, what’s time? Walking around, doing some random walks through all these familiar landscapes, just to see whether you get your own personal take on it and I think this is what children do. I know somebody told me that there are these tests about creativity and if you do these tests with 4-year-olds, like 98 percent pass. They have the top grade, and then you do 18-year-olds and it’s like 3 percent or something. So what happened in the meantime? I think we really kind of squeezed out that creativity at the cost of measuring the learned knowledge.
What mistakes are we making in science education?
I think my overall line is that I think two points, one is that there is much more ability in children of any age to understand science if they are taught in the right way and in particular, if the natural enthusiasm that every child has is preserved. I feel we are actually unlearning scientific abilities, creative, intellectual curiosity and that’s horrible because certainly from my perspective, when these students finally enter universities, then there’s all this remedial teaching we have to kind of [teach] them and particularly, if they come at the research level, we say well, it’s not about doing tests. It’s actually building your own ideas, getting intuition for what science is, which is in some sense, a much more natural presence for young children. So I think that’s something that really we can do much more of in science education.
I feel that the way we are teaching is all very goal directed. We think about it in doing tests and we feel that the teacher should be an authority, should understand everything and then he or she can explain what’s going on. That’s why teachers are so afraid often to do experiments in the classroom, because something might go wrong and then you don’t have the perfect answer. My line would be, no, it cannot go wrong because the laws of nature are always working. There’s always an explanation, but perhaps you should sit with the children. You should kind of ask the questions. Science is much more about a process of inquiry of collaborating, of being inventive, of being critical. These are the kind of skills that are incredibly fundamental and they should be taught at an early age.
I think we think now that, for instance, physics is difficult so we have to wait many, many years to teach this to children; well, I think actually the fundamentals of science literally can be taught to 2-year-olds. I once had a discussion with can you teach anything in science for children say 2-, 3-, 4-year-olds? They said no, you cannot because they cannot write, they cannot read, they cannot even write numbers. They cannot calculate. Well, then you do little experiments, like for instance how a plant grows—in the dark or in light? They can draw; they can draw the curve. So what we’re thinking when we’re drawing a curve, we think well, we can only draw a curve because first we have to read the instructions, draw the curve. Then we have to know the numbers to see where the curve goes, but actually if you just put a little plant and you can just see the height, you don’t need all of that. And drawing the curve and seeing one growing faster than another is perfectly clear from the image. So I think we put things in the wrong order. There’s a much more direct way for children to connect to what I feel is the basic element of science, which is not the knowledge per se, but it’s the method, it’s perhaps also the kind of more romantic feeling, that there’s this vast ocean of knowledge to be explored and you can jump in. You can think yourself. I find it amazing that children are not more exposed directly to what science is. They do all kind of computer simulations, etc., instead of doing the real thing.
What educational advice would you give to the parent of a young child?
Well, my favorite statistic is every year happiness among children is investigated across the world and there’s always one country that comes out as having the happiest children and that’s the Netherlands, and that’s for many, many years, and so why? I think that’s a very simple answer. It’s freedom. I think Dutch kids are able to explore much more on their own, whether it’s social issues or just in general, and so it’s the most difficult thing for a parent I think to give that freedom to your children because you want to be protective, you want them to have the best life. Ideally you have this little remote control and I think I see many parents they think they have a remote control. Nobody told them that there aren’t batteries in there, but I feel that they’re remotely controlling their children and I experienced this and the thing that you have to do is let go because the greatest pleasure I think as a parent is to see your child come alive by something and you know exactly when this happens. You can’t fake that. By perhaps something we were totally unable to predict. That’s the thing that they will resonate with. That’s the thing that will bring back to you and that’s a great gift but you have to be patient and I feel a very strong parallel with my research because it’s similar. Someone has to give you the confidence that you’re going in the right direction and it’s frightening because there you go, you know, and there’s no guarantee but then if you find something, the pleasure is just infinite and I think that’s the same experience I have as a parent and that means you will have disappointments. Some of the things will not work out; others will work out. The whole way this plays out in time might be completely different than you think. It might not in any way be commensurate with the educational system but I have a very fundamental feeling that in the end, human beings are able to find their niche in life, if they are given the freedom to explore. If you constrain them and force them to be happy in a certain situation where they are not, I think they will not blossom and I think that’s a horrible shame. I think it’s a painful lesson I just went through as a parent too, but it’s a very deep lesson.
What does the Institute for Advanced Studies represent?
I think the Institute, in a kind of narrow sense, is a place where wonderful people can do research and of course we are blessed with this history of, I always joke if you start with Albert Einstein, it’s like downhill from there. It’s a good starting point. But I feel the importance of the Institute is much larger. I think it stands for something. It stands for freedom of research of the belief that individuals can find their own way, that undirected research can have enormous impact in our lives and of course although it’s relatively small it did impact the world at several moments in a very significant way, whether it’s from Von Neumann building the first modern architecture computer here, to all what happened here with nuclear physics, there are so many examples. I feel if I look at the landscape of research there are various issues and I think the Institute is occupying this I think very important niche of totally curiosity driven, basic research. It’s as basic as you can get and I think it’s important that by its sheer existence it’s pointing to that niche, saying well wait a moment this is an important element of the whole picture. I’m not saying that the whole world should be like this, no; clearly we need engineers, we need lots of applied science and applied scholarship but there is this other part of the spectrum where you really go as far upstream as you can go, which is crucial for the development of our ideas in the end might start a whole river, so I think that in that sense it has a larger than life image. It’s a symbolic image, at least for me, it’s always been a very powerful image as kind of standing for something that I would love to see in some form or shape in any academic institution and I think it’s there but it’s like a pure form of that and so in that sense it’s very similar that for instance you can be inspired by certain people, in science, in art, in politics whatever. You know the fact that somebody is out there and is doing certain things in a certain way could be an inspiration to yourself, so in that sense I hope that the Institute of Advanced Study, being there surviving, doing very well, feeling very relevant is an inspiration for other institutions and in fact, because we have so many people coming here, in our whole history I think 6,000, 7,000, I always hope that they kind of take a little thing away from it and bring it back home.
What’s it like living in J. Robert Oppenheimer’s house?
It’s a beautiful house. The directors live in Robert Oppenheimer’s house and it’s an old farmhouse was built in the late 17th century and of course you’re sitting there and you think about just what happened, sometimes. Such a powerful history and the other great thing is that we have Einstein’s grand piano in our living room, so these two things together for physicists doesn’t get much better.
And the great thing is that Einstein of course was more known for playing the violin but he was trained both as a violinist and as a pianist. I think only until age 14 or something, but the story goes that he likes the piano more to improvise so he would sit behind it and just kind of doodle a little bit, musically speaking. And so I think that’s for me a great relief that I can sit there and I’m very much a struggling musician so I feel totally comfortable to struggle because even the great man, but it’s you know for him music was very important so just to be able to touch it is magic.
Be sure to read Robbert Dijkgraaf’s essay, “Are There Barbarians at the Gates of Science?”