Not quite promptly at six o’clock on Saturday morning, two dozen scientists whose fields of study can’t be summarized in a sentence boarded a bus at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, New Jersey, and headed south, bound for the March for Science, in Washington, D.C. “I hope it doesn’t rain,” Ed Witten, the first and only theoretical physicist ever to win the Fields Medal, the Academy Award of mathematics, said.
Witten, who is in his sixties, is tall even when seated and speaks in a measured, almost sheepish tone.
In it, Abraham Flexner, an educational reformer and the founder of the I.A.S., argued that institutions of learning should be more concerned with cultivating intellectual exploration than with finding immediate applications for scientific research.
“Throughout the whole history of science,” Flexner wrote, “most of the really great discoveries which had ultimately proved to be beneficial to mankind had been made by men and women who were driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity.”
Many of the bus passengers seemed to fall easily into that category.
Stanford, for his part, was “trying to understand some conceptual aspects of black holes that are confusing.” Having grown up in Washington State, he said, he was “rather happy about the weather today.” He hadn’t made a sign, though.