Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 34
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
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Young Scholars Interact With Luminaries at Institute’s “Adventures of the Mind”

Ellen Gilbert

It was a celebrity-watchers dream. Not the Britney Spears-type celebrity, mind you; more the Nobel Prize, Poet Laureate, MacArthur “genius” award winner kind of celebrity, and they were all in one place, as Adventures of the Mind held its biennial summit for students ages 15 through 18 at the Institute for Advanced Study last week.

One-hundred-fifty high school students from across the country participated in the program, which is sponsored by the Student Achievement and Advocacy Services, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to helping promising students maximize their potential. Among them were three Princeton area residents: Nicholas William Bleisch of Classic Homeschool Academy of Princeton, and Rachel Bergman and Clare Joyce of Princeton High School. For Mr. Bleisch, who will be attending Yale University in the fall, it was a particularly gratifying experience as he turned out to be the winner of one of two essay contests, each carrying a $2,500 scholarship, sponsored by the public records company, Intelius.

The brainchild of education advocate Victoria Gray, Adventures of the Mind was first convened in 2000. Sometimes referred to as “Davos for High Schoolers,” it brings together promising young scholars with some of the most notable figures in business, science, literature, and entertainment. In attendance last week were former United States Poet Laureates Billy Collins and Rita Dove, dance legend Jacques d’Amboise, environmental artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and eight Nobel Prize winners. The meetings take place every other year on a college campus.

Other guests this year included Nobel Prize-winning physicist Jerome Friedman; computer software pioneer and two-time space tourist Charles Simonyi; biologist Bernd Heinrich; activist and musician Naomi Judd, essayist, novelist, and physicist Alan Lightman; Rhode Island School of Design President John Maeda; Princeton University Mathematics Professor John Conway; Operation Smile Co-Founders Bill and Kathy Magee; writer Stanley Crouch; Institute for Advanced Study theoretical physicist Juan Maldacena; Music Pulitizer Prize-winner Paul Moravec; Economics Nobel Prize-winner John Nash; and graphic designer and writer Chip Kidd. Three members of the Dyson family were present, including Institute for Advanced Study physicist Freeman Dyson, his daughter, Esther, an entrepreneur, journalist, and philanthropist; and his son, George, a historian of technology.

Nominated to attend Adventures of the Mind by teachers and counselors based on their academic achievement and potential, students had the opportunity to interact with visiting mentors through science seminars, musical performances, poetry readings, tours of the Institute and Princeton University, and less formally, at meals and breaks.

Despite the headiness of the roster, speakers at the colloquia, often clad in shorts and sneakers, brought a joyful energy to their 15-minute presentations, which bore a strong resemblance to TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) talks. Graphics designer Chip Kidd delighted the audience with his account of creating the cover for Augusten Burroughs’s memoir Dry, in which the letters have a smeared appearance (“I threw a bucket of water at it”). “‘This one’s ruined,’” he reported an airport bookstore customer complaining. “‘They all came in that way,’” responded the clerk.

Striking a serious note, Mr. Kidd reported that his designs “get rejected all the time. This is a very important message I have to relay to students. You can reach the pinnacle of your career, and you still get rejected.”

Carnegie Mellon computer scientist Luis von Ahn’s youthful appearance and funny, fast-paced delivery might have belied his status as a MacArthur “genius” award-winner. In response to the resounding “yes” he received from the audience in answer to his question about whether they found the distorted letters sometimes used to verify one’s identity in sending a computer message annoying, he waited a beat before saying, “I invented it.”

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