From Princeton to Prison

One of my graduate school classmates today sent around a link to a story about someone many of us remembered, Dragoljub Cetkovic. I somehow missed it last year when it appeared, it’s by Paul Halpern and entitled From Princeton to Prison: The ‘Boy Genius’ Who Was Recruited by John Wheeler and Sentenced by Trump’s Sister. As the story explains, Drago Cetkovic was a precocious young physicist, who John Wheeler brought to Princeton in 1974 (Barry Simon says it was actually Remo Ruffini, Wheeler’s postdoc, who had recruited him). Drago was studying quantum field theory, but wasn’t much interested in doing things like passing exams or working as a Research Assistant (the usual assignment for first-year grad students). This led to trouble and him getting kicked out of the graduate program.

By the time I arrived in Princeton, Drago was a mysterious fixture around the department, often to be found in the library. I recall a couple times asking him about what he was working on, receiving a dense and, to me, utterly incomprehensible explanation. There were rumors that he was somehow being supported on some grant or money from the IAS, but I have no idea how he made ends meet (Simon says he at times was sleeping on John Milnor’s floor). I left Princeton in 1984, and things evidently went downhill for him after that. As explained in the Halpern piece, as well as in this story from the time, in 1987 Drago for some reason left a cyanide-laced tea bag in a Princeton grocery store, and called in some sort of threat. He ended up being sentenced to five years in prison, I don’t know what happened to him after that.

Some of the stories about him refer to his supposedly threatening Barry Simon’s life (Simon was the faculty member in charge of graduate students who had to ask him to leave the program). I had heard this story, and one day when I was talking to Drago, asked him something like:

“Hey, I heard you threatened Barry Simon’s life, and that’s why he left Princeton to go to Caltech. Is that true?”

His answer:

“No, that is not true. And, if it were true, Caltech would not be far enough!”

I do wonder what happened to him, hope that he sooner or later ended up in a new and much better phase of life.

Update: My memory of those days is rather faulty, it quite likely was Nathan Myrhvold who asked him about Barry Simon. Nathan also recalls that he was working on spinor geometry. Maybe now I’d understand what he was trying to explain to me back then.

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6 Responses to From Princeton to Prison

  1. Swany says:

    Typo: Princeton grocery story,

  2. G. S. says:

    I think that “number of brilliant-but-insane former graduate students who still live in the campus library” is one of the metrics that U.S. News & World Report uses when ranking physics departments.

  3. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks. Fixed.

    At the time, Drago was rather minor league, since we also had John Nash (who made perfect sense when you talked to him) in the Math/Physics library.

  4. says:

    The Montenegro hotel mentioned, now directed by Dragoljub Ćetković, is the Hotel Bokeljski Dvori, founded 1975 (which would be too early, unless he took it over later). Contact details are in the advert on page 39 (PDF pagination) of or if you want to book a trip to investigate:

  5. In Hell's Kitchen (NYC) says:

    I think the only boy genius that Wheeler brought to Princeton and who then went on to make something of himself is Demetrios Christodoulou.

  6. william e emba says:

    I remember Drago, and I had some interesting conversations with him. I left Princeton in 1980, sometimes ran into him when I visited campus afterwards over the next five years. I was shocked beyond belief, utterly freaked, when I realized that an article I was reading in the Weekly World News was about his arrest for the cyanide lacing. I had thought Alexander Abian was more their speed.

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