Dutch Physicist and Science Educator Robbert Dijkgraaf to Head IAS

Henk Thomas

Dutch theoretical physicist and prolific science popularizer Robbert Dijkgraaf has been tapped as the new director of the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey, the former home of Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and many other luminaries. Dijkgraaf, who worked at IAS from 1991 until 1992, is a professor at the University of Amsterdam and president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW).

In an interview with ScienceInsider, Dijkgraaf, 51, called IAS a "magical place that gave my career a decisive new impetus."

An internationally renowned expert in string theory, a press release issued by IAS today says Dijkgraaf "found surprising and deep connections between matrix models, string theory, topological string theory and supersymmetric quantum field theory."

IAS, which has schools of Historical Studies, Mathematics, Natural Sciences and Social Science. does not give out degrees, has no experimental facilities, and is home to a permanent faculty of fewer than 30. Every year, it welcomes some 190 talented scientists to come do theoretical research for a few years without the distraction of teaching obligations or mundane issues like housing. "As someone said, it's a place with no excuses," says Dijkgraaf.

In his own country, Dijkgraaf is best known as an infectiously enthusiastic science communicator who couples academic prestige with boyish curiosity. Besides being a columnist for daily newspaper NRC Handelsblad, he set up a Web site with physics experiments for children and frequently introduced promising young scientists to a wider audience in a popular daily talkshow. Since he took over in 2008, he also worked to give KNAW a more dynamic and prominent role in Dutch scientific and policy debates. Dijkgraaf is co-chair of the InterAcademy Council, a job he plans to keep.

"It's an excellent choice," says Erik Verlinde, a colleague at the University of Amsterdam who also spent 5 years at IAS. "He knows that world very well, he has the management experience, and the past few years have given him many international contacts." In a statement today, KNAW Vice President Pearl Dykstra said "it is a real coup for the IAS to get him on board."

Dijkgraaf says that in addition to his administrative role, he plans to return to active science, which the KNAW presidency left him little time for. But he also "emphatically" wants to continue being a strong voice for science communication and education. "I'm not sure how exactly, but IAS has a very special place in the world so I think there will be great opportunities."

Raising money will be another one of his jobs—and a new one for Dijkgraaf. In August, two members of the IAS Board of Trustees gave the institute a challenge grant of $100 million, to be matched by $100 million from other donors over the next 4 years. "I look forward to that in the sense that I know there are many beautiful stories to tell about the science at the institute," says Dijkgraaf—who has been assured it will be a minor part of his job.

Dijkgraaf will be the ninth IAS director in IAS's 81-year history and the second European; he succeeds British mathematical physicist Peter Goddard, who will continue as a professor in IAS's School of Natural Sciences.

This item has been corrected. A previous version misstated how long IAS has been in existence.