Berkeley: An intellectual crossroad between the 99% and the 1%

Last Friday, I gave a talk at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) in Berkeley, California. That the talk was at 11:00 am on 11/11/11 was a pure coincidence. That it started 11 minutes late was not. But “numerology” is not the subject of this post, since I am one of the 100% of mathematicians who cannot “logically” believe in that nonsense.

Today’s post is about the fascinating place that the University of California at Berkeley is.

In order to get to the UC Berkeley campus from the Durant Hotel (where I had breakfast at a table next to Leonard Cohen more than 25 years ago) you have to walk through gatherings of starving but performing artists, wide-eyed but inspired druggies, vocal activists for social justice, loud advocates for a new world order, student militants for exotic political causes, and others pleading for a new social contract.

Berkeley has of course its own “occupy” movement, but then every other city does these days. This is a town that was the epicenter of the grass root movement against the Vietnam War in the 60’s and 70’s, and is very proud of it. Every wall of the Durant Hotel (picture above) reflects Berkeley’s pride in its role during that epic struggle. Who said that nostalgia is not good for business?

Berkeley even had its own terrorist. Remember the Unabomber?

Yet, in the middle of –not to say out of– all this sophisticated anarchy, this anti-establishment diversity, and this perpetual defiance of conventional norms, you find one of the most prestigious institutions in the world: The University of California at Berkeley.

Indeed, in whatever ranking of world universities you stumble upon (and there are lots of them these days), UC Berkeley always figures in the top 1% (actually the top 0.1%). The only US public university to do so consistently.

UC Berkeley is a hotbed for excellence, innovation and intellectual pursuits. Yet, it is a far cry from the perfectly groomed and sanitized campuses of Stanford, Harvard and Princeton. UC Berkeley is one of those rare and precious places where the 99% feel as much at home as the top 1%. This is because we are talking about the intellectual elite and not Wall Street barons.

Even the founding of the Berkeley based Mathematical Science Research Institute (MSRI)  in the late 70’s could be seen as a reaction (a correction?) to the elitist ways of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies (IAS).

The advent of the MSRI ushered in an era of “democratization” of mathematical research. Whereas only the top elite had access to the confines of the IAS, France’s IHES, Cambridge and Oxford, Berkeley’s MSRI –with a spirit reminiscent of the old Wild West–opened up opportunities to all serious researchers, whether they hailed from the American mid-West, from the Arabian-Israeli-Persian middle East or from the Indo-Chinese far East.

The themes of MSRI’s programs keep changing from one year to another, hence multiplying the opportunities and opening up the institute to diverse groups of mathematicians and to different types of mathematics: the ones in vogue today and those that will be fashionable tomorrow.

MSRI was our partner in founding the Banff International Research Station (BIRS). With more than 2000 scientists participating in the Station’s activities every year, BIRS is all about access. Intellectual access. A place where a graduate student from Regina and a mathematical guru from Princeton can live, eat and breathe mathematics … together.

It is this Berkeley inspired culture of striving for excellence via universal access, cultural diversity and intellectual freedom, that we are trying to entrench in the Canadian Rockies.

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