The waitress suddenly interrupted our lively conversation. My discussions with Helmut -a fellow mathematician and a friend for more than 25 years, who looks like a cross between St John the Baptist and Attila the Hunt– are always loud, boisterous, happy and kind of therapeutic. “The gentleman on the table over there would like to offer you a bottle of wine of your choice,” she said. We looked at each other surprised and almost in shock. “Are you sure?”
No, this was not at some sleazy nightclub in Pigalle. This happened at the dining hall of Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS), where I was last week. The gentleman who offered the bottle of wine was “A friend of the IAS”, that is one of the many private donors to this venerable institution.
And venerable the IAS is. Still filled with the spirits of Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, Kurt Gödel, Alan Turing, Paul Dirac, Hermann Weyl and J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “Institute” is a haunted place.
Every country wants its IAS. The Perimeter Institute in Canada, the IHES in France, IMPA in Brazil, etc. Even the IAS wants to be the IAS of the 40’s and 50’s.
Still, the aura of the IAS is there to see, and not only by scientists everywhere in the world, but also by the community at large. You could also sense it in the keenness of the private sector friends of the IAS to be seen as “friends of the IAS”. Hence the bottle of wine.
Let’s see now! Should we have the 1954 Chateau Lafite? After all the IAS has one of the best cellars in the world. The European geniuses who came here in the 1940’s didn’t just bring their intellectual powers. They also made sure to import with them the living standards of “bon vivant” scientists they had enjoyed at their elite European institutions.
What do you think Helmut? Oh! The “Lafite” may be too embarrassing to order. Let’s stick with the 2007 Clos du Bois Merlot!
And let’s drink to your next great theorem, old friend. Cheers!