The world of Thinking

written by Andreas Hartel on 2021-10-18

Last week, I watched the documentary "The world of Thinking" on Vimeo. I chose to watch it because it portraits the Institute of Advanced Study (IAS for short) which is a fascinating place to me. It is located in Princeton, New Jersey, USA, and was the scientific home to many great and well-known mathematicians and theoretical physicists. It does indeed harbor scientists of other disciplines as well but those are of less interest to me. "The Institute", as it is often called, is a special place in that it is the closest implementation of the Ivory Tower of Science. The purpose of the Institute is to allow a few select scientists to focus as good as possible on expanding the boundaries of human knowledge.

What makes the movie "The world of Thinking" particularly interesting is that it portraits the institute, it's operating mode and 5 individuals that worked and lived there while the movie was shot. These are Freeman Dyson, Helmut Hofer, Vladimir Voevodsky, Nima Arkani-Hamed and Yvonne Geyer. It portraits nicely what motivates those people and it shows also that while they are completely free to chose the direction of their research and while they are completely freed from everyday chores and worries they still have their struggles which are then mostly psychological.

I must admit that the basic premise of the Institute sounds tempting at first. Someone pays you money, provides you with an accommodation, food and an office. You get in contact with the best scientists in the world in your field. If they don't already work next door then you can just invite them to work with you (at least that's how I imagine things to happen over there).

But then at a second glance, you might realise that the pressure that the people who work there put on themselves is huge. Progress in research is an uncertain, non-deterministic process. This is in the movie best illustrated with the example of Yvonne Geyer who, it seems, must just have finished her PhD before she came to the IAS. She speeks openly about the pressure she feels when working at the IAS and when collaborating with her role models.

One of her role models is Nima Arkani-Hamed, a theoretical physicist who has been portrayed already by Quantamagazine and in the movie "Particle Fever". In "The World of Thinking", he explains what drives him to work so hard, what his childhood has to do with his desire to do something great with his life and what it takes to be a great researcher. He is also described as "never tired" and "always out there" by Yvonne Geyer, basically as someone who is always on the hunt for breakthroughs and never reluctant to discuss great physics with his colleagues.

The stories that moved me most were those of Vladimir Voevodsky and Helmut Hofer because both of them experienced seriously life changing events in their lives. Vladimir Voevodsky apparently developed something like schizophrenia (at least that's what John Nash suffered from andn Voevodsky mentions having talked to Nash about his own experienced and having found similarities). And while he was apparently able to live with this state of mind for a long time, the outro of the movie mentions that he had died 9 weeks after his last interview with the film crew. I could not help but wonder if the psychological changes he experienced earlier in life were somehow correlates of an earlier physiological damage in his brain, but I will probably never know.

And then there was Helmut Hofers story. This man worked for more than 15 years on his masterpiece mathematical theory and then lost his son during the year in which he finally wanted to finish his manuscript. And it was clearly visible from the interviews what this experience had done to this man who was probably around 60 when the interviews for the movie were recorded. Very sad to watch.

Overall, I really liked the movie and would certainly recommend it. The footage of the Institute itself and the whole estate was great. And then one other thing that I found particularly pleasing was that the historical anecdotes and life stories that were told by the interviewees have all been illustrated with some footage. While this was never original footage, it was always chosen and edited in such a way that it did not distract from the voice the interviewee but it would always add a feeling to the whole story and help the viewer's imagination to travel back in time and live through the story together with its narrator.