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Scholar David Nirenberg Hopes to Foster Discovery As New Director of the Institute for Advanced Study

(Photo by Andrea Kane/Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ, USA)

By Wendy Greenberg

This past September, 281 new and returning scholars and faculty gathered for a new term welcome at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton. Among them were a new director of Women and Mathematics; a faculty appointee who is a leading figure in the field of p-adic geometry; and members whose fields range from transcultural medieval and pre-modern African and global history to the mathematical procedure harmonic analysis.

Among this diverse group of thinkers from 36 countries representing more than 100 academic institutions worldwide was another newcomer: David Nirenberg, who was named the Leon Levy Professor, and the IAS’s 10th director, in February 2022.

While Nirenberg is new to the directorship, the IAS is not new to him. He visited as a youth, and in 1996-97 was an official Visitor in its School of Historical Studies. While he earned his master’s degree and Ph.D. at Princeton University from 1987 to 1992, he spent “many hours in West Building deep in conversations.”

Nirenberg has enjoyed an academic career that has taken him from professorships at Rice and Johns Hopkins universities to dean of the social sciences and executive vice provost at University of Chicago. But the IAS directorship intrigued him, as he put it, in ways no university could. 

Not being a college or university, the IAS is not concerned with its post-graduate outcomes; first-year class admissions yield; enrollment declines; student debt; and other challenges faced by institutions of higher learning. It enjoys a unique status as a place for pure “foundational discovery,” where the scholars are “waiting to be surprised by the direction in which our thoughts and our diversity of dialogues will take it,” according to Nirenberg in his academic year welcome. 

“The place has always seemed precious to me, as one of the few spaces on Earth dedicated entirely to the possibilities of deep thought on difficult questions,” said Nirenberg recently in his office in Fuld Hall, where his teak desk once belonged to another director, J. Robert Oppenheimer. “Who would not want to contribute to the mission of the place, if given the opportunity?”

IAS Mission

The mission of the IAS “is remarkably straightforward,” he explained. It is “to enable scholars with the potential for foundational discovery to actualize that potential to their fullest ability, no matter where they come from.”

That mission, he added, “has been unwavering.” The founding documents stated that the Institute “should support promising scholars regardless of their race, religion, or sex: a very unusual position in the 1930s. And that mission remains critical, especially at a time when barriers to the movement of scholars and the transmission of knowledge are on the rise across the globe, and when many research institutions are turning away from fundamental, curiosity-driven research in favor of more applied work with shorter-term horizons,” Nirenberg pointed out.

Welcoming this year’s group of faculty, members, and visitors to the schools of Historical Studies, Mathematics, Natural Sciences, and Social Science, he remarked that the goal of the IAS since its founding has been “to assemble a collection of thinkers capable of producing, through their talent, proximity, collaboration and conversation, and diversity of approaches, insights, and discoveries that could not otherwise have been produced.”

Collaboration and discussion are encouraged, and serendipitous encounters can occur anywhere on the 600 acres or be facilitated by good food or teas (the IAS is known for both). The Rubenstein Commons building opened this fall, a space that will further foster collaboration and communications between the scholars in the IAS’s four schools.

The IAS is “one of the few spaces on Earth really dedicated to enabling the work of scholarship. It is a precious mission. We are here to support the discoveries of each scholar.”

Rubenstein Commons, Institute for Advanced Study. (Courtesy Steven Holl Architects; Photos by Paul Warchol)

Community Relationships

As a Princeton resident, Nirenberg is attentive to how residents perceive the IAS, which is in a residential neighborhood off Olden Road. He finds one misconception particularly widespread — that the IAS is part of Princeton University (it is not affiliated but is collaborative). He would also like to dispel the notion that it is insulated from the Princeton community. The IAS woods are open to the community, as are lectures and concerts, and a Friends group of supporters is open to community residents.

Some Princetonians know the IAS’s storied history, while others are unaware it brought the likes of Albert Einstein out of Europe at a time when intellectuals were concerned about rising fascism. (Einstein, the IAS’s first professor, had an office in Fuld Hall until 1955, and bequeathed his home at 112 Mercer Street to the IAS.)  Among past and present faculty members there have been 35 Nobel laureates, 44 Fields Medalists, 22 Abel Prize laureates, and many Wolf Prize winners and MacArthur Fellows.

Rubenstein Commons, Institute for Advanced Study. (Courtesy Steven Holl Architects; Photos by Paul Warchol)

Storied History

The IAS was founded May 20, 1930, when sibling philanthropists Louis Bamberger and Caroline Bamberger Fuld provided $5 million. The department store heirs originally wanted to fund a medical school in Newark, but Abraham Flexner, a Louisville, Ky., reformer of medical and higher education, persuaded them to go in a different direction. Flexner was the first director, from 1930 to 1939, and recruited several European scientists, including Einstein in 1933. Flexner’s vision was “a haven where scholars and scientists could regard the world and its phenomena as their laboratory,” according to the IAS website.

Flexner’s landmark piece in Harper’s Magazine in 1939, “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge,” presented the case for theoretical research. He argued that “curiosity, which may or may not eventuate in something useful, is probably the outstanding characteristic of modern thinking. It is not new. It goes back to Galileo, Bacon, and to Sir Isaac Newton, and it must be absolutely unhampered.”

The first school, the School of Mathematics, was started in 1932, with Einstein and Oswald Veblen as the first faculty. When the New York Times announced Einstein’s appointment, it used Flexner’s term, “scholar’s paradise.” That concept also was conveyed in a 1999 New York Times article which dubbed the IAS the “ultimate ivory tower,” and quoted a former ambassador calling it “the closest thing you can find to a paradise-on-earth.” The article states that “to almost everyone else it is a mystery hidden on a wooded square mile in central New Jersey.”

Foundational Discovery

Flexner’s Harper’s piece explained that while some research may not seem significant in itself, it can be the basis for more significant research. The impact of scholarship, said Nirenberg, is not always felt immediately; chance encounters can kindle ideas that take years to evolve.

“It’s always too early to tell,” he said, when asked what current research looks promising. “You can’t predict the unknown. You are supporting work that is foundational discovery, not short-term discovery.”

One example he used was John von Neumann’s stored program computer architecture which formed the mathematical basis of computer software. Additionally, scholars at the School of Historical Studies developed ways to think about the past and interpret images. The foundation of a newer field, the theory of gaming, emerged at the IAS as well, as did the basis for modern theoretical meteorology; string theory and astrophysics; systems biology; theories of global development and international relations; and the deepening of art history as a discipline in the United States, to name a few.

Last spring the Sunday New York Times carried an interview with political theorist Wendy Brown, UPS Foundation Professor in the School of Social Science at IAS, that discusses the notion of free speech on college campuses.

(Photo by Andrea Kane/Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ, USA)

World-Renowned Historian

Nirenberg’s own scholarship is well-respected. He has been quoted in the New York Times, New Yorker, and other publications as an expert on the balance between religious intolerance, and religious identity and traditions. When he was named director, the IAS announcement included a quote from Myles Jackson, a professor in the School of Historical Studies, in which he called Nirenberg “a world-renowned historian, whose incredible range of expertise includes religions in medieval Europe, the history of race, and most recently the history of math and physics.”

He is the author of numerous books and articles on Christians, Jews, and Muslims of medieval Europe and the Mediterranean. His books include Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle AgesAnti-Judaism: The Western Tradition; and Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, Medieval and Modern.

On the University of Chicago website, he acknowledges that he has “spent most of my intellectual life shuttling between the micro and the macro, trying to understand how life and ideas shape and are shaped by each other. One stream of my work has approached these questions through religion, focusing on the ways in which Jewish, Christian, and Islamic cultures constitute themselves by interrelating with or thinking about each other.” Much of his work offers an understanding of the role of violence in shaping coexistence.

His celebrated 2013 book, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, is not a history of antisemitism, as it may sound, but a long view of how a system of thought has been used to make sense of events.

With his father, mathematician Ricardo Nirenberg, he co-authored Uncountable: A Philosophical History of Number and Humanity from Antiquity to the Present, that combines the case for the power of numbers and the power of humanities, “about how people learn to think with numbers and apply it to the world.”

Nirenberg said writing a book with his father was both “quite glorious” and stressful. “Often, we are learning from our parents at an age when we can’t appreciate it,” he said. “When you come together as adults, you bring different skills and perspective. You can relive the pedagogy that happens in a family without the hierarchy of the family.”

A Youthful “Outsider”

His father and his mother, a computer programmer, started a webzine, Offcourse, in 1998, which might be the longest continuously published webzine. Nirenberg’s parents were immigrants from Argentina, and moved when he was 7 to upstate New York where his father was a mathematics professor in the State University of New York. It was “interesting to be an outsider” he said of growing up in a Spanish-speaking family in a small town near Albany, N.Y. He said it made him “more conscious of the conditions of existence.”

Now living in Princeton, Nirenberg joked that, “the weekend can usually find me either standing in line at the bent spoon or on long runs on the trails around Princeton trying to compensate for having stood in line at the bent spoon.” An avid runner, he arranged an IAS team for the November 13 Princeton Half Marathon.

Taking the long view, he commented on what he hopes might be his legacy as IAS director.

“I imagine that every director hopes for future discoveries as significant as those that were made here under the stewardship of directors past. I certainly do,” he said. “So, I hope that when the time to select the next director comes, my colleagues will feel that during my time here they had access to the colleagues, tools, and resources they needed to do their very best work. That will require maintaining the institute’s many strengths, but also building upon them.”

In the meantime, he had, in his welcome address, this more immediate hope for his new community:

“May every instance of your coming year in this extraordinary space of research and learning, the space dedicated to the dialogue of ideas, even at their most difficult, bring you a renewed sense of the possibilities for your own thought and your own discovery.”