Piet Hut the Hero Physicist

This is the first installment of a 3 part series. This post was followed by “Hut-Alford-Tegmark Debate on Math, Matter and Mind” and “My Response to Hut-Alford-Tegmark.”

This is also the 3rd installment of  “the physicist” series. The first two were:

  1. Yalçɪn Koç the philosopher physicist
  2. Jacob Barnett the young physicist

Piet Hut the Hero Physicist

IAS (Institute for Advanced Study) in Princeton is an illustrious institution. Legendary mathematicians and physicists worked there. Gödel, Einstein and Weyl were faculty members at IAS.  All current faculty members are highly accomplished people with impressive resumes.



I care about IAS for some inexplicable reason even though I have never been there. It is only two hours drive from where I live but something prevented me from visiting IAS. I respect the people who work there and I admire the institution’s relentless striving for excellence.

The adjective “relentless” can be  both positive and negative. Over the years IAS has become too self-important. Striving for excellence can do that to you if you are not vigilant. I care about IAS and I don’t want this peerless institution to be narrow minded and dogmatic.

Piet Hut is a tenured faculty member at IAS. He is a physicist specializing in computational aspects of astrophysics. He is also a philosopher and an interdisciplinary scientist. You can find his CV and publication list and information about the projects he is involved with in his home page at IAS.

In a physics paper [1] he described his approach to physics as the Mystic approach. In my “Miletus, Constantinople, Istanbul, New York” article I mentioned that the term “mystic” is used as an insult among the East Coast intellectuals. It was very courageous of Piet Hut to write that paper as a faculty member of IAS.

“The reason I like the word ‘mystic’ is that the future science I envision will be so different from current science, and the role of elements such as math and experiments will be so different from what they are now, that we have not the foggiest idea of what these will look like. The structures of a future science will remain a mystery, and the only thing we can be pretty sure of is that our current lines of reason will be seen to be naive and superficial, compared with the newer and deeper insights. So let me be clear: the word ‘mystic’ for me points to a form of probing into mysteries, as it was meant in Medieval times. Note that mystics were very keen to try to show structure and to enumerate parts of that structure – the term ‘mystic’ just happened to get a bad rap later on, and is now unjustifiably associated with attempts to confuse and muddle a situation.” – Piet Hut [1]

When he published that paper in 2006 he had already been through a tough battle with the IAS administration and emerged victorious so at that point he was much bolder but it still took courage to write that paper.

“Controversy has also surrounded Piet Hut, an astrophysicist who was appointed to the faculty of the School of Natural Sciences in 1985. The initial proposal to appoint Hut met with skepticism among some of the IAS faculty, but his supporters at the institute won out. Dissatisfaction grew as Hut began to write nontraditional papers relating Western science and Eastern philosophy. A 1993 visiting committee evaluating the School of Natural Sciences singled Hut out as a weak point. In an attempt to settle the matter quietly, Griffiths drew up a letter of agreement, which Hut signed, stipulating that Hut would leave the institute by the year 2001. When the time came for him to leave, Hut declared the agreement invalid and said he would remain on the faculty. The institute filed a motion in court to determine whether the agreement he signed was legally binding. News of the motion provoked outrage within the academic community, where the motion was mistakenly seen as a lawsuit and as an attempt to revoke Hut’s tenure and restrict his academic freedom. The institute quickly backed out of the legal proceedings, because, Griffiths says, “In the big picture this is a relatively small matter, and we didn’t want it to be a distraction for the members and faculty.” Hut remains at the IAS, and next year he will become a professor without a school affiliation.”  – Allyn Jackson, “The IAS School of Mathematics“, Notices of AMS, Volume 49, Number 8, September 2002.

After the controversy, IAS appointed Piet Hut as the professor of  “Interdisciplinary Studies.” Piet Hut is the only faculty member of Interdisciplinary Studies at IAS.

Netherlands gave us Spinoza, Hendrik Lorentz, Gerard ‘t Hooft. Piet Hut is another representative of the wonderful Dutch tradition in science.

Interestingly, the new director of IAS, Robbert Dijkgraaf, is also a Dutch scientist. He is a String/M theory physicist and a student of Gerard ‘t Hooft. Prior to his position at IAS he was the president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. It will be interesting to observe how Dijkgraaf will treat Hut. I will be more optimistic when I hear the appointment of the second faculty member to the Interdisciplinary Studies at IAS.

[1] Piet Hut, Mark Alford, Max Tegmark, “On Math. Matter and Mind” , Foundations of Physics (2006)


About Suresh Emre

I have worked as a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the Superconducting Super Collider Laboratory. I am a volunteer for the Renaissance Universal movement. My main goal is to inspire the reader to engage in Self-discovery and expansion of consciousness.
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