concerning the lawsuit filed against Piet Hut
by the Institute for Advanced Study
I am very sad to see the lawsuit between the Institute for Advanced Study and Piet Hut, since I hold both in such high regard. I first met Piet in 1984, when he provided the key insight that made our Nemesis theory possible. A section I wrote in my 1988 book "Nemesis" puts Piet's current problem in some perspective:
That evening, over dinner, Piet told Rosemary [my wife] and me about a paper he had written with the astrophysicist Martin Rees. They had analyzed the possibility that one of the large new particle accelerators being built to study subnuclear particles could accidentally trigger a "phase transition" of the vacuum of space. Happily, Hut and Rees had calculated that such an event was extremely improbable.
Piet told us that he had carefully considered the consequences of publishing a paper like that. He had worried that politicians might use it as an excuse to delay the building of accelerators, and that colleagues might use it as evidence that Piet's research was frivolous. He could afford one such paper in his career. But now, a second paper, speculating on a companion star to the sun? That would make two "nut" papers in a row. He wasn't sure his career could stand it. I wasn't sure he was kidding.
It was shortly after this work that Piet was offered a tenured position at the Institute for Advanced Study. Clearly they knew that he was an original and unpredictable thinker. But that is the kind of person an institution must continue to attract if it is going to maintain its reputation. No first-rate science department in the country can afford to make conservative choices. And the only sure way for a scientist to get a prestigious appointment is to be daring, original, and solid. Piet Hut satisfied all these requirements.
In his new position at the Institute for Advanced Study, it was not Piet Hut's right to exercise his originality -- it was his responsibility. Tenure is a rare privilege that is virtually nonexistent outside of academia. Those of us who have it -- have a responsibility to use it. We are granted tenure, presumably, because the university (or the Institute for Advanced Study) knows that institutions are too conservative. Pick talented people, those who are creative and motivated to work hard, and let them determine which direction to go. That is the system that has successfully led to the development of the greatest academic institutions, including the Institute for Advanced Study.
Piet has exercised this responsibility, perhaps more than the Institute reckoned. In his wisdom, he decided that the greatest advances could come from a digital computational approach to some of the most outstanding problems of astrophysics. Having tenure, he could pursue his work according to his best judgement. That is what, presumably, the Institute wanted.
I don't know for sure, but I suspect that the Institute for Advanced Study will look very foolish, in about a decade or two, when the wisdom of Piet's approach can finally be evaluated in retrospect. But it is certain even now that it is doing enormous damage to itself by attempting to terminate him. This is just a foolish mistake. The only truly appropriate action for the Institute is for it to admit its mistake, apologize, and try to restore its reputation as an organization that has been on the forefront of academic freedom. If they don't do this, then the danger is very real -- not to people such as Piet Hut, who will thrive elsewhere. The danger is that the truly original scientists will no longer look upon an appointment at the Institute for Advanced Study as a coveted post. That will certainly condemn the Institute to be known as one of the greatest institutions of the 20th century -- but not of the 21st.
Richard Muller October 11, 2000 <-:=:->