Meet the world's brainiest people

The world's cleverest academic institute has no students, no curricula and no lectures. Instead, the planet's greatest minds are invited simply to think about life, the universe and everything. Dermot Purgavie visits America's Institute for Advanced Study.

Michael Walzer may be the world's happiest philosopher. Tieless and wearing trainers, he seems so relaxed he could be in danger of falling apart. "When you come here you are completely free to do whatever you want for the rest of your life," he says. "We are a small group of very privileged people. We have extraordinary freedom. Nobody is checking up on you. Nobody is judging the value of what you do. It is unimaginably wonderful."

Setting new standards for the rhetoric of job satisfaction, Dr Walzer, one of America's most distinguished political thinkers, is sitting in his sun-flooded, book-lined, cosily cluttered office at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), the exalted intellectual sanctuary where he has laboured so contentedly for 25 years. "It's a very liberating place," he says.

The institute, set in 500 acres of woodland in Princeton, New Jersey, is where eminent eggheads have pondered the Big Questions since the double-yolked Albert Einstein triumphantly arrived from Europe to be enthroned as the founding member of a priesthood of thinkers.

It was conceived as "a paradise for scholars," and is now celebrating its 75th anniversary as an intellectual powerhouse where some of the world's most celebrated and accomplished brains - physicists, historians, anthropologists, philosophers, astronomers, sociologists - have gathered to contemplate the meaning and the order of things. They get paid around a quarter of a million dollars a year and serious, Rodinesque thinking is the only requirement. Meanwhile, the institute chef toils over his menus, the wine cellar is kept well stocked and tea is served every afternoon at three.

There are 26 permanent professors, currently three of them women, in four schools - historical studies, mathematics, social science and the natural sciences - and 190 post-doctoral scholars from universities around the world are invited to visit for a year. But there are no students, no curricula, no lectures, no tutoring, no committees, no research programmes. Spared financial worries and the burdens of teaching, members of the faculty are free to follow their intellectual curiosity wherever it leads and for however long it takes. Enlightenment is the only mission.

The faculty has been described as one of the most remarkable collections of minds on the planet - it currently includes the physicist Edward Witten, once nominated as "the cleverest man in the world" - and the institute's crowded honour roll features the winners of 19 Nobel Prizes and 32 Fields Medals, the Nobel equivalent for mathematicians.

But even in paradise strife lurks and the institute's scholarly hush is sometimes roiled by the same grubby matters that beset lesser minds - intrigue, rivalry, gossip, personality clashes. "The academic world is full of egos," says Professor Walzer. "We spend so much time alone that narcissism is one of the standard pathologies." Around Harry's Bar, adjoining the institute restaurant, excessive self-regard is known as the Einstein Effect.

"There is really no place quite like this," says David Olive, a visiting physicist from the University of Wales at Swansea, between nibbles on a coconut cake. It is tea time, and the common room buzzes with earnest talk in many accents, much of it dense and impenetrable intellectual jargon. Beneath framed prints of English colleges, scholars crowd the leather sofas and, on a bright, warm afternoon, spill out on to a patio that overlooks a sweeping lawn and a huge, exhibitionist linden tree with ground-hugging branches. The tea comes in cardboard cups and the eggheads come in jeans, T-shirts, trainers and sandals. Peter Goddard, the institute's British director, sports the only tie.

Dr Goddard, formerly Master of St John's College, Cambridge, is a mathematical physicist and one wall of his office is covered by a blackboard for when a Eureka! moment strikes. Profound-looking equations are chalked across much of it. "Those?" he says. "They're calculations on aspects of string theory." Of course.

In its pursuit of the biggest, most tantalising question of all - whether there's a grand, all-embracing theory, a unified theory of everything, that will complete our understanding of the laws of the universe - the IAS has become a hotbed of string theorists, who argue that the basic building blocks of nature are not zero-dimensional particles as previously believed but tiny one-dimensional filaments called strings. "String theory is the best candidate to give us a unified understanding of the forces of nature," says Goddard. "I began working on it in the early Seventies. It never occurred to me then that I'd still be working on it 30 years later."

But Dr Olive, a long-time collaborator of Goddard's - their work has been cited by the International Centre for Theoretical Physics for its "many crucial insights that shaped our emerging understanding of string theory" - reports that there is progress. "We like to think that we are getting closer to a theory of everything," he says. "We understand more things."

Lacking students, the campus - a cluster of landscaped buildings in a mix of architectural styles running from reproduction Georgian to modern concrete-and-glass - has a subdued, monastic air. Though it maintains close and cordial relations with its Gothic-spired neighbour, Princeton University, the institute is totally independent. It has an endowment now valued at half a billion dollars - the chairman of its trustees is James Wolfensohn, retiring president of the World Bank - and a budget of $40m (£23m) a year.

It's the Real Madrid for brainiacs, and a long and diverse line of intellectual superstars has alighted there since Einstein came to town, pulled down his office blinds and announced: "I will a little think." They include Kurt Gödel, recognised as the greatest logician since Aristotle; the archaeologist Homer Thompson, who revolutionised the world's understanding of Greek culture; Robert Oppenheimer, forever identified as the father of the atom bomb; the mathematician John von Neumann, who built the first high-speed, stored-programme computer in the institute basement; and George Kennan, the diplomat who devised America's Cold War doctrine of containment. f

In 1948, T S Eliot, the first artist in residence, wrote The Cocktail Party there, but then left for Stockholm to collect his Nobel and never came back. Most, though, are loath to leave and many still go to their institute offices long after they've retired. The enticements include the fine dinners that are served twice a week by resident chef Michel Raymond - steamed Maine lobster, grilled buffalo and venison, pan-seared yellowfin tuna - and a 9,500-bottle wine cellar.

The IAS is as good as it gets in the brow-puckering business, and their free-range thinking runs far and wide, from galaxy dynamics, bioethics and terrorism to art history, the evolution of language and Byzantine theology. However, taking a break from high-mindedness, a couple of astrophysicists did once apply themselves to trying to develop a roulette system that would beat the casinos in nearby Atlantic City.

"There's a myth that people come here and go to sleep but I don't see that in any of my colleagues," says Professor Walzer, who by eight every morning is at his desk and immersed in political theory, moral philosophy and interests that run from the welfare state to just and unjust war (he supported the war in Afghanistan but is opposed to the invasion of Iraq and the pre-emptive doctrine).

Members of the faculty tend to work in monkish seclusion and they generate some mystery. The institute had a brief pop culture moment as the backdrop for Walter Matthau, Tim Robbins and Meg Ryan in the movie IQ ("All these great figures, they turn into bobbysoxers," sniffed the anthropologist Clifford Geertz of his star-struck colleagues). But, beyond a vague mythology about a gang of geniuses ruminating on life's conundrums somewhere out in the woods, even people who have lived in Princeton all their lives cannot tell you very much about the commune of distinguished thinkers on Einstein Drive.

That may be changing, however. Due to a happy historical alignment, the institute is now deep into a year-long series of public ceremonies commemorating not just the 75th anniversary of its founding, but the 50th anniversary of Albert Einstein's death and the 100th anniversary of the "miracle year" in which Einstein reinvented physics with four seminal findings that permanently changed our understanding of the workings of the universe. For the discreet and cloistered IAS, it's something of a coming out party. The institute's founding mission - "fundamental inquiry into the unknown" - was a noble undertaking funded by the commerce of frocks and socks at a prominent New Jersey department store called Bamburgers. Whether by astonishing luck or magnificent judgement, in 1929 the owners, Louis Bamburger and his sister Caroline Bamburger Fuld, sold out to rival Macy's for $25m just six weeks before the Wall Street crash. It couldn't have happened to two nicer capitalists.

As the Depression took hold, they put much of their money into a variety of social causes but were particularly anxious to establish some sort of public institution to reward the shoppers of New Jersey for their loyalty to Bamburgers. They had in mind a medical school but an educational innovator called Abraham Flexner persuaded them to finance his long-cherished idea for "a free society of scholars" - a gathering of shimmering intellects pursuing knowledge for its own sake in the ivoriest of towers.

The Institute for Advanced Study, incorporated in 1930, was a bold, idealistic concept, and the enterprising Flexner had another equally audacious idea. He would recruit Albert Einstein to become the first member of the faculty and the institute's brand image.

The relativity theory, hailed as the greatest achievement of a single human mind, made Einstein a global celebrity. Few understood what he was talking about but it didn't matter. They knew it was important and he looked so right. With the mad hair, the soup-strainer moustache, the accent, the pipe and his engaging eccentricity - he refused to wear socks, even on the day he was sworn in as a US citizen - he was a cuddly caricature of the crazy genius.

He had so captured the public imagination that they named cigars and babies after him, and the London Palladium offered the Elvis of science a three-week, name-your-own-terms engagement, though what he was supposed to do - play his violin? - wasn't clear. He was also being heavily courted by universities, among them Madrid, Paris and Oxford, but when Flexner went to Germany and offered him $10,000 a year - more than three times what he asked for - Einstein enthusiastically signed on. "I am fire and flame for it," he said.

He arrived in New York on the liner Westmoreland with his wife, Elsa, his secretary and his assistant in October 1933. "The pope of physics has moved and the United States will now become the centre of the natural sciences," said Einstein's friend, the French physicist Paul Langevin.

His ardour was dampened almost immediately. In his zeal for intellectual solitude, Flexner intercepted an invitation for Einstein to dine with President Franklin Roosevelt at the White House and declined it for him, saying: "Professor Einstein has come to Princeton for the purpose of carrying on his scientific work in seclusion. It's absolutely impossible to make any exception which would inevitably bring him into public notice." Einstein was outraged - he wrote letters to friends from "Concentration Camp, Princeton" - and threatened to resign if Flexner didn't stop meddling in his affairs. Three years later he led a faculty revolt that ousted Flexner as director.

Einstein's major contributions to physics were behind him but his fame and prestige gave the institute recognition and a validation that down the decades brought many other f great minds to the place that Robert Oppenheimer, its director for 19 years, called "an intellectual hotel".

Prominent among them was the Berkshire-born physicist Freeman Dyson, whose father, the composer Sir George Dyson, was music master at Rugby and director of the Royal College of Music. Freeman, who joined the IAS faculty in 1953 and is now an 82-year-old professor emeritus, is known for the range of his mind - theoretical mathematics, particle physics, astrophysics, nuclear engineering - his ability to explain complex science simply and a weakness for the imaginative and unconventional.

Upholding the image of the eccentric scientist, he was once involved in trying to build a spaceship for the US Air Force that was powered by H-bombs - it would set off successive thermonuclear explosions in its wake and ride the shock waves through the cosmos. "This is not nuts, this is supernuts," said the mathematician Richard Courant, an expert on shock waves, after watching a model of the ship collapse on its launch pad. Eventually it did work in small-scale trials but the project was finally abandoned.

Some believe that IAS could use a bit more nuttiness - Dyson once argued for "more crazy people at the institute" - and also a little more meeting of the minds. "Very little synergism occurs here," according to astronomer John Bachall, a member of the faculty for more than 30 years. "At the institute what you get is isolated fiefdoms of excellence."

The professors are left alone to follow their own star, explore the big ideas, immerse themselves in high theory and perhaps work on their put-downs ("So young and already so unknown," said Nobel-winner Wolfgang Pauli of a fellow physicist).

But critics of the institute's aloof, lone-thinker philosophy say that it discourages valuable intellectual discourse between scholars in different fields. When they do get together, at meal times, there is little fraternising. The various disciplines tend to gather at separate, segregated tables. Astrophysicists don't eat with art historians. Philosophers do not dine with mathematicians. "What mathematicians are doing is not anything I can understand or that they can explain to me," says Walzer.

Sometimes, he says, it gets hostile. "There was almost a civil war here when the School of Social Science was set up in the Seventies. To mathematicians and historians, social science was not a science and not a field for advanced study. They refused to recognise it and when I got here in 1980 the scars were still visible. Now there may be mutual indifference but it's not a civil war." Dr Goddard, who became the institute's eighth director last year, says that collegiality is blossoming: "Cross-fertilisation is increasing."

Some fret about their ivory-tower lifestyle. "The question is whether such a pampered life is really good for you," says Professor Dyson. "That's hard for me to judge." But it turns out that intellectual freedom can actually make a great mind quite neurotic. The pressure to be successful in an environment where there are no excuses for not achieving can be intense. "There is stress here," says Professor Walzer. "There is a sense that we are occupying a position of enormous privilege and that we have to justify it, perhaps most of all to ourselves. There is great pressure to do serious and significant work."

Clifford Geertz has defined it as the water-walking problem. "You're supposed to be a genius if you come here. You're supposed to walk on water. Einstein did walk on water but the rest of us don't. And if you come and you not only don't walk on water but you don't even sort of wade, you're in trouble. Psychologically that's a hard life to live. If you aren't doing good work everybody knows it, and the level of anxiety is extraordinarily high."

Einstein's bay-windowed office, No 115, now belongs to the mathematician Robert Langlands. Einstein's house, on nearby Mercer Street, is now occupied by the institute economist Eric Maskin. Einstein's grandfather clock, armchair, pipe and music stand are on show at the local historical society. And Einstein's brain - which weighed a less-than-average 1,230 grams is finally back in the Princeton hospital where a pathologist, without authority, removed it from Einstein's corpse in 1955, cut it into pieces and kept it for 40 years, stored some of the time in a beer cooler.

Meanwhile, the eternal search goes on: Where's the next Einstein? It may be a silly question but in a world eager for heroes standout young scientists are always being measured against the Einstein standard. Stephen Wolfram was one of them. He won scholarships to Eton and Oxford, published his first scientific paper at 15, was a PhD at 20, became the youngest recipient of a MacArthur "genius" award [a no-strings-attached award for exceptional creative thinkers] and, after he joined the physicists at IAS, was heavily touted on magazine covers as next-Einstein material for his work on the origins of complexity in nature. He later created the Mathematica computer programme and now, at 46, runs his own research company in Illinois.

Many believe that science is now too big and sprawling for one person to dominate it the way Einstein did. "Einstein solved problems that people weren't even asking about or appreciated were problems," says Professor Edward Witten, the alpha superstringer who's been called the world's smartest man. "It could be there are big questions that nobody is asking, but there are so many more people in physics it is less likely big questions could go unasked. But one thing about Einstein is he was a surprise. Who am I to say that somebody couldn't come along with a whole completely new way of thinking?"

If somebody does, a perch in this thinker's paradise awaits.

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