Keith Hilles-Pilant: “The greatest multiplier is fundamental research”

Friends of IHES welcomes a new member in its Board, Keith Hilles-Pilant. In the article below, Keith shares how he first heard about IHES in his early years as a mathematician and how the mission of the Institute resonates with his own values. He also describes how he perceives philanthropy and why he believes in supporting fundamental research in particular.

I was fortunate to begin my apprenticeship in mathematics and science at Princeton, a small, friendly, informal and international community of world-class scholars that became my family. Many of the basic themes of my life began there. I became aware of IHES and the powerful “French School” of mathematics, and discovered my attraction to the French language and culture. John Moore, my thesis advisor at the University (and at the time perhaps the person at Princeton most connected with the French mathematical community) was especially important to me in this regard, as was André Weil at the Institute, who welcomed me at his talks and was probably far too patient with my questions. Clearly, I was imprinted with the value of a community doing fundamental research from an early age. Princeton was also where I first began doing science and computing. I was invited to join Lyman Spitzer’s astrophysics group on the orbiting telescope Copernicus project, which later led to a stint on a fusion project at Los Alamos. Just beyond the Institute Woods, I first encountered the Quakers with their strong service ethic, which has had a lifelong influence on my philanthropic philosophy as to where I invest my time, energy and money. Last but not least, my wife Carolyn and I were married in the University Chapel!

Like many young mathematicians, I was drawn into the computer industry, doing research at the IBM Corporation and also developing proprietary algorithms for chip placement and wiring. After some success in those areas, I shifted into the academic sphere again and mentored exceptionally bright students in the United States and half a dozen other countries, including especially France, where I have many old friends. Returning to the U.S. after several years in Asia and Europe, the administrative phase of my career began when I was asked to be the Executive Director of Math for America in Boston. Since the winding down of that project, I have entered the philanthropy and governance phase of my life. My other primary positions now are at Harvard, where I hold a research position in the History of Science Department, and at the Boston Athenaeum, where I am a Proprietor.

The over-arching theme of my life has been to seek out ways to multiply my efforts: maximizing outputs from modest inputs, whether that has been in research, teaching, administration or philanthropy. Effective researchers find problems that are both accessible and important. Effective teachers inspire students to love learning, do their best, and go on to do great things in life. Effective administrators motivate workers to perform at their highest level. Effective philanthropists seek out targets for giving which eventually return more to the world than they receive initially. The greatest multiplier, par excellence, is fundamental research. It is thus an honor and a privilege to be asked to work on behalf of IHES, an organization which I early on came to admire vicariously through my first mentors.