May 27, 2020

A Different Idea of Teatime While the Institute is Closed

“LIKE PAVLOV’S DOG”: When 3 p.m. approaches at the Institute for Advanced Study, the campus community starts craving the homemade cookies served at afternoon tea in Fuld Hall. But the gathering is about more than tea and sweets. Some significant scientific ideas have emerged from conversations in the Common Room. (Photo courtesy of IAS)

By Anne Levin

Among the advantages of being a faculty member or visiting scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) is the ritual of afternoon tea. Every weekday at 3 p.m., tea and homemade cookies are set out in the Common Room of Fuld Hall. And the Institute community turns out in force.

“It’s like Pavlov’s dog,” joked IAS Chief Development Officer Liz Wood, last week. “We have a pastry chef who makes the cookies, and you start craving them before 3 o’clock.”

While the Institute is closed during the COVID-19 crisis, the administration is  taking a different approach to the daily gathering. “Teatime at Home” is a weekly online newsletter that urges members to take a break — maybe with a cup of tea — and read feature articles, interviews, and curated multimedia about the Institute community.

“It keeps our members and former members engaged,” said Wood. “We have been doing interviews with our scholars, and we also do a music piece curated by David Lang, who is our artist in residence. Those musical selections are broadcast on WWFM radio on Fridays at 6 p.m.”

The May 18 issue featured an interview with visiting professor and 2019 Abel Prize laureate Karen Uhlenbeck, by IAS journalism fellow Joanne Lipman; a 2014 article by former von Neumann fellow Olga Holtz; reprints of 2019 features by current IAS members Susan Clark and Elena Murchikova about astronomy research; and a performance by pianist Vicky Chow curated by Lang.

Afternoon tea dates back to the 90-year-old Institute’s beginnings. Elizabeth Veblen, the wife of Oswald Veblen, then professor in the School of Mathematics, introduced the tradition when the Institute was housed in Fine Hall on the Princeton University campus. After the move to Fuld Hall in 1939, the custom continued.

“One of the ideas of the four schools that exist here was to create interdisciplinary thinking,” said Wood. “Teatime is a convergence that really exemplifies the best of the Institute. The scholars are theoretical scholars, and though there is a lot of collaboration, they mostly work in their offices alone. Teatime is a chance for people to get together and talk, In fact, some famous collaborations have started over tea.”

There is Einstein’s idea about quantum entanglement, for instance — it started over tea.

“EPR refers to a paper that three physicists Albert Einstein, Boris Podolsky, and Nathan Rosen wrote in 1935 while at IAS, ‘Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality be Considered Complete?’,” reads an article from the IAS fall newsletter in 2013. “The idea of the paper arose during an IAS teatime conversation between Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen and introduced an ongoing debate over quantum mechanics. The publication of the EPR paper was heralded in the New York Times under the headline ‘Einstein Attacks Quantum Theory,’ reporting Einstein’s view that quantum mechanics is “correct” but not “complete.”

In an article remembering theoretical physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson in Quanta magazine last month, IAS Director Robbert Dijkgraaf cites a conversation Dyson had over tea that led to a research breakthrough.

“During a teatime discussion with the mathematician Hugh Montgomery at the Institute in April 1972, Dyson suggested that the zeroes of the zeta function repel one other in exactly the same way as the energy levels of his random matrices,” he wrote. “This has turned out to be a remarkably fertile approach in modern number theory, leading to breakthroughs in various generalizations of the Riemann hypothesis.”

While the Institute remains closed, there is other virtual programming in place. “Like any organization, we have different audiences,” said Wood. “On the scholarly side, professors are continuing to do seminars and collaborations, mostly through Zoom. In some ways, our audiences for these have grown. Seminars that had been live, where you had to travel here to attend, are now available online. So we have had people from all over the world at our virtual lectures.”

Most of these lectures are posted on the IAS website ( and are available to the general public. “We’re thinking about doing some bigger public lectures,” Wood added. “I think we have actually learned something during this time. We have become masters of video, so there is a lot of collaboration going on.”