Behind the Gates Of a 'Platonic Heaven'

WHO GOT EINSTEIN’S OFFICE? Eccentricity and Genius at the Institute for Advanced Study. Ed Regjs. Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA. 1987. 320 pp. $17.95. Since Albert Einstein’s sojourn there, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey has enjoyed a worldwide reputation as a preeminent think-tank. As the author, philosopher Ed Regis, puts it, the institute is a “Platonic Heaven” where esoteric thinkers can muse about the most abstract forms of the universe. H

Jan 25, 1988
Robert Kargon
WHO GOT EINSTEIN’S OFFICE?

Eccentricity and Genius at the Institute for Advanced Study. Ed Regjs. Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA. 1987. 320 pp. $17.95.

Since Albert Einstein’s sojourn there, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey has enjoyed a worldwide reputation as a preeminent think-tank. As the author, philosopher Ed Regis, puts it, the institute is a “Platonic Heaven” where esoteric thinkers can muse about the most abstract forms of the universe. He further explains, “They make no product and they do no experiment. Their whole purpose in life is simply and solely to understand.”

Regis’ purpose in Who Got Einstein’s Office? is deceptively simpIe. When a 1983 magazine assignment brought him to the campus of this “very special place,” he was filled with questions. “What was the Institute anyway, and what did its great minds do there?” After briefly reviewing the origins of the institute, Regis devotes chapters to some of its biggest names—Albert Einstein (“The Pope of Physics”), Kurt Gödel John von Neumann (“Good Time Johnny”), J. Robert Oppenheimer—and some of its most illustrious fields, including mathematics, astrophysics, The Truth. In a brief epilogue, Regis attempts to provide a portrait of the institute as it functions today (“The old guys show up first They open the place up”), an assessment of its achievement (“[N]ot enough really happens. The people there just don’t produce”), and a depiction of the organization as one excessively jealous of its reputation.

This last point reveals a particularly glaring fault in the narrative. Regis makes much of a purported effort on the part of institute officialdom to suppress Beatrice Stern’s unpublished history. Many people at the institute think it went unpublished because it was not worthy; Regis believes it was “disowned and forbidden” because it described the “warts, foibles and imperfections" of the institute’s luminaries. He goes to great pains to describe how his access to the history was obstructed. Why he makes such a fuss is a mystery, for even his own bibliography notes that a microfilm copy of Stern’s history is on file at the Library of Congress and yet another at Western Maryland College.

Regis’ book is a refreshing change from the usual hagiography, but behind the breezy, facile prose are breezy, facile ideas. The book betrays its origins as an article for a popular science magazine. Instead of serious analysis we have potted (and sometimes potty) science lectures, colorful anecdotes and “gee whiz!” punctuation. The scientific community needs a challenging, sound history and assessment of the institute. It seems we will have to walt a bit longer.

By the way, who did get Einstein’s office? The answer is an anticlimax and truly irrelevant to the book’s purpose. After Einstein moved out, astrophysicist Bengt Strömgren had the office for 10 years, and after he left, mathematician Arne Beurling moved in. He is there today. So?

Kargon is professor of the history
of science at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD 21218.


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(The Scientist, Vol:2, #2, p.20, January 25, 1988)
(Copyright © The Scientist, Inc.)

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