Princeton's `intellectual hotel' and its scholarly inhabitants

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Who Got Einstein's Office? Eccentricity and Genius at the Institute for Advanced Study, New York: Addison-Wesley. 316 pp. $17.95. Though it emphasizes science, it has no laboratories and conducts no experiments. It is in Princeton, N.J., but has no connection with Princeton University. J. Robert Oppenheimer, its director for 19 years, called it ``an intellectual hotel.'' Virtually all the great figures of 20th-century physics and mathematics have been guests at one time or another, including 14 Nobel laureates.

In ``Who Got Einstein's Office? Eccentricity and Genius at the Institute for Advanced Study,'' Regis, associate professor of philosophy at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and a writer for Omni magazine, gives us two stories: (1)a history of an enclave of theory and thought, and (2)entertaining explanations of the important scientific work done there.

Regis's enthusiasm and anecdotes make for fun reading, but his style is too bright, and his approach is ambivalent: He falls back in wonder at gifted intellects whose thought is so elevated that mere mortals can never understand. At the same time, he relishes the quirks and oddities of what he calls ``Monster Minds.''

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The Institute for Advanced Study is the unlikely offspring of a Newark department store and a visionary. In 1929, just weeks before the crash, Louis Bamberger and his sister, Caroline Bamberger Fuld, sold out to Macy's for $25 million cash. They planned to start a medical school, and who better to advise them than Abraham Flexner, author of the famous muckraking report on United States medical education?

Flexner convinced them that what they really wanted was to found an elite society of scholars where the world's greatest minds would advance the frontiers of knowledge free from the pressures of students and classes.

In 1930, Flexner got his ``Platonic heaven'' off to a grand start by persuading Albert Einstein to come to Princeton. ``The press hailed Einstein's theories as the greatest achievement in the history of human thought, and Einstein himself as the greatest man who ever lived,'' Regis writes.

He became a world cult figure, and people who knew nothing of physics could read in the tabloids that he never wore socks, never combed his hair, and played the violin. Babies and cigars were named after him.

But Einstein's seminal work had been completed several decades earlier, and by the time he left Nazi Germany he was ``out of tune with the physics of his time.'' He devoted the last 20 years of his life to a search for a theory of the unified field - a frustrating series of false leads, one blind alley after another. He came to be viewed as a living icon. Oppenheimer called him ``a landmark, but not a beacon.''

Others at the institute from the start included Kurt G"odel, ``the second smartest man in the world,'' who eventually starved himself to death ``in guilty fear that his famous theorem, which radically altered mathematics, was mistaken and that he had not achieved enough,'' and John von Neumann, whose photographic memory and dazzling intellect intimidated his colleagues.

When he wasn't busy living it up as ``Good Time Johnny,'' von Neumann made historic contributions in logic, game theory, and neurophysiology. His pioneering work in computers provided a base for more recent discoveries such as cellular automata and the astounding graphic patterns produced by the fractal algorithms of institute alumnus Benoit Mandelbrot. The book even includes some programs for Mandelbrot sets that you can try out on your computer.

Oppenheimer enjoyed a generally successful hands-off directorship. But his membership on boards and commissions concerned with the atomic bomb also brought a big safe and a 24-hour armed guard for classified papers, conferences on the H-bomb, and, later, wiretaps and FBI agents.

Regis believes that the institute's ``top-heavy administration'' has become the ``curator of icons and protector of The Image'' and that in selecting its permanent faculty, they were more concerned with ``harmony'' than with brilliance. Its ``Achilles' heel,'' he says, is that ``you don't want to hire people unless they have made crucially important contributions to their discipline, but on the other hand you don't want to hire a person who has seen his best days.'' But this may be a general problem: ``What, for example, do Nobel laureates produce after they've won their prizes?''

Freeman Dyson, who joined the institute in 1940, thinks more risk-taking is in order: ```Have you ever been to Cambridge University?' Dyson once asked. `It's full of crazy people - oddballs, loners on the verge of doing something really tough and historic. Why shouldn't they be crazy? Nature is crazy. I would like to see more crazy people here at the Institute.'''

An appointment to the institute offers a stipend averaging about $90,000 a year, an office, an apartment, and - five days a week - breakfast and lunch, plus tea and cookies in the common room at 3 p.m.

Most residents today are younger scholars on one- or two-year memberships. Providing a sabbatical for postdoctoral scholars at a critical point in their careers is what the institute does ``superbly well'' and what Regis feels is its ``greatest contribution to science.... They know how to make the best of the unlimited free time. They don't need any more fires lit under them.''

Today, says Regis, ``the ancient greats'' - Einstein, Niels Bohr, P.A.M. Dirac, Wolfgang Pauli, and Oppenheimer, ``have died, the Nobel prize winners have left.'' Flexner envisioned a place where thinkers would be spared the distractions of the world. Regis says that this has brought a stultifying isolation and that Flexner's vision has not proved itself over time.

David Burns is project director, American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The review heading for ``Who Got Einstein's Office?'' on Oct. 13 omitted author Ed Regis's name. The Monitor regrets the error.

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