The scientific heritage of IHES
IHES explicitly drew inspiration from the model of the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), founded in the 1930s and led by Robert Oppenheimer from 1947. The famous physicist, scientific director of the Manhattan project, played a vital role in the Institute’s crucial first years, as lifelong member of the Scientific Committee, advisor to the director, frequent visitor and correspondent.
From 1958, Léon Motchane visited Robert Oppenheimer for detailed discussions on IHES’ activity and development.
“There is no doubt that I mainly come to meet you and to have two or three good discussions with you, as I do every year. By discussing problems that we both share, by talking in a friendly manner of things and people – because the Institute is about people, by listening to you, I can arrive at a course of action that seems to take us in the right direction.”
Extract of a letter from Léon Motchane to Robert Oppenheimer, 1962.
Robert Oppenheimer’s visits were carefully orchestrated by Léon Motchane and covered by the press. Oppenheimer’s presence was an event in itself and his visit to IHES was an important marker of the Institute’s official recognition. Robert Oppenheimer was to visit IHES three times: in 1959, in 1961 at Bures-sur-Yvette (although the Institute had not moved there yet) and in 1963. The program was prepared meticulously to include meetings of the Scientific Committee, discussions with Board members and other influential people (French business men, members of EURATOM - European Atomic energy Community) and exchanges with key players in French higher education and research.
Robert Oppenheimer played a key role in setting up the theoretical physics section at IHES. In 1961, he justified IHES’ recruitment of Louis Michel to Maurice Lévy. The latter, who held the theoretical physics and high energies chair at Orsay, had not been in favor of it. Oppenheimer supported the recruitment of David Ruelle, who was also being thought of for a post at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS). He defended the vision of developing a theoretical physics section “that would investigate the current experimental studies of fundamental physics problems”.
In the 1960s, IHES created the American Committee for the Institute for Advanced Study - Europe, with the approval of Robert Oppenheimer, and launched its first fundraising campaign in the United States.
Oppenheimer was keen to perpetuate the European scientific tradition in which he had been trained and he also took an interest in modern European science projects. He believed that IHES needed to operate as a European institute. It was largely thanks to him that EURATOM (European Atomic energy Community) would support IHES from 1960.