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Robbert Dijkgraaf: ‘Diversity improves science’

His Leiden honorary doctorate, the future of scientists, and diversity in science. Robbert Dijkgraaf tells about it in one of the classical rooms of the Academy Building. ‘It's very special, my honorary doctorate. A rare homage.’

The importance of diversity

‘People are very different and have different views of the world. Precisely these differences reflect the richness of the world we study. To put it simply, diversity makes science much better.’ That is what Robbert Dijkgraaf says, director of the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton and professor at the University of Amsterdam. Dijkgraaf is visiting Leiden University because he will receive an honorary doctorate on 8 February. A day later, he will speak at the Women and Girls in Science Day.

Robbert Dijkgraaf after his lecture with a Leiden Science hoodie

The road to diversity

Dijkgraaf regularly stresses the importance of diversity during public performances. ‘It is important that there is room for everyone in science’, he says. 'Science belongs to all of us, is for all of us, and is performed by all of us.’ 

According to Dijkgraaf, there is no single golden standard for achieving greater diversity. ‘I think institutions should decide for themselves: "What kind of reflection of society do we want to be", and go for that. Diversity in the approach to diversity is also important.’ For example, when attracting people at the IAS, Dijkgraaf himself not only looks at their scientific experience, but also at their environment, family, and other aspects. ‘In fact, you have to cover all the elements. It is difficult to prescribe this as a recipe for the entire society, but I think it is much easier to achieve this in the university setting.’

Women and Girls in Science Day

On Saturday 9 February, Dijkgraaf will talk about women who inspire him at the Women and Girls in Science Day. In the Academy Building, he gives a sneak peek of his speech. ‘I'm going to talk about two women. The first is Emmy Noether, a German mathematician of Jewish descent. She has perhaps made the greatest contribution to modern physics. The second person is Maryam Mirzakhani, who was the first woman to win the Fields Medal in 2014. She worked on the same subject as I do, the mathematical foundation of string theory.’ When asked if it has a special value for him that they are women, he immediately answers: 'No, actually not. The main thing is that I appreciate their work and still use their insights almost daily.’

'Innovative research into string theory'

During the 444th dies natalis of Leiden University, Robbert Dijkgraaf received an honorary doctorate for his impressive research on the intersection of physics and mathematics. Such as his calculations of the properties of black holes in the Universe. Honorary Supervisor Eric Eliel, Professor of Quantum Optics, said: 'Unifying Einstein's theory of gravity and quantum mechanics is the ultimate goal of your research; that unification is considered the holy grail of physics'. Eliel praised Dijkgraaf's innovative research into string theory, the theory that tries to interpret the fundamental forces of nature in one all-encompassing theory. In addition, Dijkgraaf has an important role as a communicator: in his performances on television, he knows how to clearly explain subjects such as the big bang and quantum computers to a public of millions.

Honorary doctor in Leiden

Dijkgraaf finds it a great honour to be an honorary doctor in Leiden. ‘Leiden University is special, if only because it is the oldest university in the Netherlands.’ He also praised the successful combination of Leiden and physics. ‘A kind of renaissance of Dutch physics happened here, and with that I also think of the Dutch natural sciences in general.’ Then he mentions the great physicists in Leiden, including Lorentz and Einstein. The latter appears to be a recurring phenomenon in Dijkgraaf's life. ‘Einstein of course had a very special relationship with Leiden. But he also had a close relationship with my current workplace, the IAS in Princeton. We now have his desk and piano in our living room,' he laughs. ‘So everything comes together beautifully.’

The future of the scientist

Before Dijkgraaf received his honorary doctorate on 8 February, he gave a lecture to an enthusiastic group of over 500 students from the Faculty of Science entitled: 'The future of the scientist'. After the lecture the students were given the opportunity to ask questions, moderated by science communication researcher Julia Cramer. 

Besides questions about gravity, the existence of chance and the possible inaccuracy of string theory, one of the students (Mees Fox, third year Life Science & Technology) also asked a personal question: 'How was your student time?' A nice question, Dijkgraaf responded, since he had an erratic student time. 'Only when I - after my study of physics - followed painting at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie did I start to see science much more as an activity than as a passive hearing.' A lesson he conveyed to the students: 'Find a way to internalize that what you are learning.'

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