Who Got Einstein's Office? Eccentricity and Genius at the Institute for Advanced Study Summary

Ed Regis

Who Got Einstein’s Office? Eccentricity and Genius at the Institute for Advanced Study

In 1929, shortly before the stock market crash, New Jersey department-store magnate Louis Bamberger and his sister, Caroline Bamberger Fuld, sold out of the retail business, intending to use much of their considerable fortune to endow a medical college in their home state. Instead, under the influence of educational reformer Abraham Flexner, they financed the creation of a unique institution: a research center with no students or classes, no laboratories of elaborate equipment of any kind--a place for concentrated intellectual work at the highest levels of abstraction. Incorporated in 1930, the Institute for Advanced Study opened in 1933 in Princeton, New Jersey, with Flexner as its director and Albert Einstein as its first professor.

That “eccentricity” precedes “genius” in Regis’ subtitle is not accidental, for he emphasizes the quirks of his brilliant subjects. Some of these figures, such as Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and John von Neumann, have been written about so much that it is difficult for Regis to avoid retelling familiar anecdotes. Others, both eminent (Kurt Godel) and unknown to the general public (young researchers such as Stephen Wolfram), offer relatively fresh material for personal profiles.

Regis, a professor of philosophy at Howard University in Washington, D.C., began this book as an article for OMNI magazine. As might be expected, his account is heavily journalistic: undemanding, irreverent, ironic, at its best providing clear exposition of complex questions, at its worst simplistic, reductive, and inaccurate. (Plato’s Academy, the reader is breezily informed, was “the world’s first institution of higher learning.”) Particularly unsatisfactory is Regis’ discussion of Thomas Kuhn’s enormously influential and much-criticized theory of “paradigm shifts.” Failing to note Kuhn’s clarification and modification of his views since the first publication of THE STRUCTURE OF SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTIONS, Regis approvingly attributes to a critic of Kuhn a position that is virtually the same as Kuhn’s own.

The text is supplemented by a number of useful illustrations; also included are programs for the Mandelbrot set and cellular automata, a bibliography, and an index.