by Linda Arntzenius
photography by Tom Grimes
Mathematical physicist Robbert Dijkgraaf and novelist Pia de Jong are celebrities in their native Holland where word of Dijkgraaf’s appointment as ninth director of the Institute for Advanced Study made the evening news on Dutch television. Dijkgraaf is one of those rare scientists able to explain the most recondite aspects of quantum and string theory to a lay audience. De Jong is a popular newspaper columnist and a leading voice in Dutch-language fiction. Together with their three children, the couple took up residence in Princeton’s historic Olden Farm last summer. It hasn’t taken them long to settle in.
In this day and age, it’s difficult to move in an absolute sense,” laughs Dijkgraaf, likening the experience to a quantum mechanical particle in two places at the same time. Here and there: Princeton and Amsterdam. Modern communication and travel made the decision to come to Princeton an easy one, says de Jong: “It’s not a case of giving anything up, living in two worlds is an enrichment for the whole family.”
Dijkgraaf’s appointment to the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) prompted an avalanche of jubilation from scientists and non-scientists alike. Vartan Gregorian, head of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and an Institute trustee, praised his “rigorous intellect.” Edward Witten commended his “outstanding contributions to our understanding of quantum fields and strings and their relations to problems of gauge theory, geometry and quantum black holes.” Social scientist Joan Wallach Scott and Princeton University President Emeritus Harold Shapiro lauded his appointment.
Dijkgraaf is no stranger to Princeton or the Institute. He was a researcher at Princeton University from 1989 to 1991 and then a member in the Institute’s School of Natural Sciences. Describing the latter as “a magical, transformative place” that played a crucial role in his professional life, Dijkgraaf remembers the easy contact he had with Edward Witten, already the towering figure in string theory. “We had a very casual conversation and then I went back to the Netherlands and had a thought about it. I emailed him with my idea. He wrote that he liked my idea, to which he’d given further thought, and that if I considered his contribution worthwhile, we should write a paper together.” Dijkgraaf jumped at the opportunity. He finished the paper, came to Princeton and then learned what he calls a very valuable lesson.
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