Physics (and a little fishin’)
May 26, 2007
ASPEN The physicist are coming!From May 27 to September 2, the Aspen Center for Physics welcomes 500 world-renowned physicists who escape the work-a-day world to meet with other big brains in the rarefied air of Aspen.Physicist George Stranahan got hooked on Aspen’s good mountain living (and good fishing) in the 1950s, spending summer months in the then little-know enclave with his family; today, he owns a ranch in Woody Creek.But Stranahan wanted someone to talk physics with, according to Jane Kelly, administrative vice president of the center. So he approached members of the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, Walter Paepcke’s visionary center for ideas in the outdoors, and along with Bob Craig and Michael Cohen started the Aspen Center for Physics in 1962.
Founders built on a four-acre campus in Aspen’s West End adjacent to the Aspen Institute, and the Aspen Center for Physics became its own nonprofit, separate from the Aspen Institute, in 1968.The center holds regular summer workshops for 500 of the best and brightest physicists from around the world and welcomes 200 more participants for three one-week sessions each winter.Attendance at the summer and winter programs is by invitation only, and the center attracts specialists from an array of disciplines – anyone from post-doctoral students to Nobel Prize winners. Kelly called it a unique opportunity for “cross pollination” of ideas.The board of directors includes noted physicists Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Krauss and Lisa Randall, and the center garners large annual grants from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and the National Aeronautics and Space Association.”It costs $350 no matter how long you stay,” Kelly said, which earns participants shared office space, space in workshops and access to a library facility. And while physicists stay an average of two weeks, Kelly encourages visitors to bring their families and stay as long as they can.The center operates a balanced budget each year, with just over $3 million in net assets summed up by in its West End campus.Its 2005 revenues of $1.47 million came from $165,484 in direct public support, $383,000 in government grants, and $836,000 collected for housing and registration.The Aspen Center for Physics pays $174,000 in salaries each year to five employees, including Paula Johnson, the organization’s finance manager who is listed at just over $50,000, as well as Jane Kelly, who said her salary is between $50,000 and $100,000, and two summer staff members and one seasonal employee who works summers and winters.The total 2005 outlay of $1.44 million paid for housing for physicists, upkeep of the West End facility and salaries.Kelly said the nearly $600,000 paid to area rental agencies for housing is a boost to the local economy, as are the many meals physicists share in local restaurants.”It’s a unique nonprofit; we’re not always fundraising. We’re not the cocktail party circuit,” said Johnson. And though the organization might ask for funds to build, the many government grants keep the nonprofit in the black. “We try to not be out there with our hands out,” Johnson said.”Right from the beginning, they wanted the best and the brightest,” Kelly said of the physicist coming to the center. “An awful lot gets accomplished here.”University professors and government scientists on campus are free of their usual administrative duties and have a chance to work on ideas they can share with their peers, all the while taking in the mountain scenery, hiking, biking, fishing and enjoying group picnics every Tuesday night.Organizers maintain a bevy of bicycles on campus and encourage participants to leave their cars at home. And there are no phones in offices.”It’s like summer camp for physicists,” Kelly said. “Physics is their life’s work. It’s their hobby. They’re all passionate about physics, and most of them never really retire,” Kelly said.The center offers free public lectures in summer and winter, and participants often act as local consultants to area schools and organizations.”They’re a wonderful group you don’t often have a chance to interact with,” Kelly said.Charles Agar’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org