Aspen’s one-story ivory tower
July 6, 2006
The sun is bright and the sky blue on a recent Thursday at the Aspen Center for Physics, where three physicists talk on two benches, one of them waving her arms and gesturing wildly while the other two concentrate. They’re seemingly speaking in algorithms, embroiled in a conversation that only a few hundred people in the world could understand.Maybe they’re discussing dark matter or mulling over the recent colloquium – “Sensing femtometer motion with atomic point contact amplifiers” – or conversing about superfluids, quantum mechanics or string theory. This is “Top Gun” for theoretical physicists, the best of the best. Or, in this case, the geekiest of the geeky. But, as virtually everyone knows, childhood nerds often end up with Ph.D.s in astrophysics while the “cool” kids end up at the local gas station. That’s when nerds become cool.Experimental physicists need laboratories – things like large-scale particle accelerators – but theoretical physicists just need quiet places to think. And the Aspen Center for Physics is the perfect place.”Major ideas come through here and get defined here,” said Andrei Ruckenstein, current president of the Aspen Center for Physics and a professor at Rutgers University. “You have a chance to meet some of the preeminent physicists in your field.”The Center hosts around 600 physicists during the summer (and a few weeks each winter) for workshops with names like “Cosmic Voids,” and “Galaxy Evolution from Large Surveys.”They are professors at Stanford, Harvard and other top universities around the world. Many of them have hatched and fleshed out ideas in Aspen that later won the Nobel Prize for physics. At any given moment during the summer there are usually a few Nobel laureates wandering the grounds, serious looks on their faces and deep thoughts in their minds.
Back in 1961, George Stranahan, from the Carnegie Institute of Technology and Michael Cohen of the University of Pennsylvania, approached The Aspen Institute about creating a center for physics. “I was out here in the summer with my family trying to finish my Ph.D. and go fishing,” said Stranahan, about the months before he decided to pursue his idea. “I talked to the then-head of the Aspen Institute, Bob Craig, about building a physics research institute here, and he thought it was a grand idea.”So Craig, Stranahan and Cohen teamed up to erect a building, raise money and attract physicists. “The next thing you know the Institute has given us land to park the building, physicists show up, and it was up-and-running,” said Stranahan. The first building was funded by the Needmor Foundation, and the operating costs were supported by the Office of Naval Research. “A lot of the agencies said, ‘You want us to pay for scientists in Aspen? We’ll get caught – they’re just taking a vacation,'” said Stranahan. “Once we started proving ourselves, that the research was solid out here, it was easy [to get funding].”By 1968, the Physics Division of the Aspen Institute already had a worldwide reputation, so it became an independent nonprofit organization.”We very quickly became the premier spot for the most important physics, the cutting edge for what was going on,” said Stranahan. “That was exciting.”Part of the success was in the philosophy. The center wasn’t attached to a university, there were no telephones, physicists could not be bothered, and blackboards are everywhere, around every corner, to capture a sudden idea or tackle a problem.”We did not designate a lot of programs,” said Stranahan, who commented that physicists were basically left to their own devices. “You’re a competent physicist, you know what you do, we’ll leave you alone. Contented cows give good milk. You come to do what’s on your mind.”Another element of the success was exactly the outdoor fun that brought Stranahan to the Roaring Fork Valley. As the story goes, John Schwarz had one of his most significant breakthroughs on string theory – the idea that the building blocks of the universe are actually one-dimensional stringlike objects as opposed to zero dimensional points (particles) that define the standard model – all while on a hike near the Maroon Bells.”Physicists don’t turn off [while] hiking in the mountains or listening to a concert in the tent,” said Ruckenstein. “Sometimes you can get your best ideas just walking around.”
Since 1968, the Center for Physics hasn’t changed much. It is still the place to go for cutting-edge theoretical physics. Telephones are still absent from offices, and blackboards are always covered with equations.Moreover, the center still runs on relatively little funding – $330,000 yearly from the National Science Foundation, going up to $420,000 next year – with a good deal of volunteer support from physicists. On top of a $350 registration fee, the physicists also come with their own paycheck from a home institution or grant-making organization.”The intellectual strength of the place per dollar spent is probably more than anywhere else,” said Ruckenstein.It’s the epitome of the so-called ivory tower, isolated from the practical affairs of society, with most of the intellectual energy devoted to interstellar space or infinitesimal spaces. All the extremes are represented in any given week. “Imaginary worlds hold more interest than real ones at times,” said Kevin Ward, director of the Aspen Science Center, about physicists. “There are vaguely formal talks, the informal work sessions, then there are the guys wandering down the halls, stopping front of a blackboard and then going for four hours. With these guys, there’s a reason there’s a stereotype, because it’s true.”At a Stranahan lecture that Ward recently organized at the Center’s outdoor classroom, two physicists started fiercely debating an issue using the classroom’s blackboard just 10 minutes before the lecture.Stranahan turned to Ward and said, “Kevin, they don’t even know we’re here. To them, we’re just noisy matter.”
The physicists come from all over the world just to interact that way. At any given time there are groups of two or three physicists standing around a chalkboard furiously writing 100-character equations.The diversity, both in physics disciplines and in nationalities, means that it’s not just all Chinese to the average listener. At times, there actually is Chinese on the chalkboard. Walk the halls of the center and you might hear Russian, French, any number of languages.”This is a great atmosphere,” said Primoz Ziherl, of the University of Ljubjana in Slovenia, who is here to work with other physicists on what he called a hot topic. “I’m detached from the usual issues. Coming here relieved me.”Professors are the cream of the crop, such as Olivia White, a Rhodes scholar and Harvard Ph.D. who now works at M.I.T.”I’m being productive on a number of levels,” she said. “It’s hugely beneficial to have all these people around.”For a few months, the great brains don’t have to answer phones, run a department or grade tests. All they have to do is think. They come here for what can only be termed a physics vacation. That might sound like hell to someone who isn’t mathematically oriented, but for these bright physicists, it’s as good as it gets. “I work hard, yeah,” said Ziherl, in a comment that was echoed throughout the halls, “but that’s not a bad thing.” So, ummm, what exactly are they talking about?”Physics is a very mature science,” said Andy Cohen, a high-energy particle physicist who teaches at Boston University and has the unusual distinction of first coming to the Aspen Center as a graduate student in the late ’80s. “The problems we think about are hard. The low-hanging fruit has been picked.”Talking to the physicists is an experience in itself. By all accounts they’re normal people, until they get into conversation about their topic. Then the excitement takes over, the eyes light up, verbosity increases, and you may as well call it a night.For Cohen, it’s the “standard model.”
“Stupid name,” he said, “but what can you do?”The standard model is a theory of fundamental particles and how they interact. There are unsolved problems in the standard model that Cohen is working on. One of those problems involves describing gravitational effects under high-energy situations. For the past two years, Cohen has been working on a theory to fix the standard model.As he speaks, he has trouble sitting still because he’s so excited. His hands start moving, and it seems he might just bounce out of his seat. He gains speed and spews ideas about high-energy particle collisions and the origin of matter. As Cohen puts it, physicists have already figured out a great deal about the physical world. That’s why so much of physics has reached into space and into other realms that are harder to test and experiment with.The theorists rely to a great degree, however, on what experimentalists come up with. For instance, the theorists need the data that comes out of high-energy particle collisions in places like the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill. (which, coincidentally, was planned at the Aspen Center for Physics). The experimentalists, on the other hand, are focused on the instruments and the minutiae of collecting that data. So they rely on the theorists to interpret data beyond the basics and come up with ideas to test.Right now, Cohen is waiting on data that will come out of a new particle accelerator being built in Geneva. The “Large Hadron Collider” will have higher energy collisions than those at the Fermilab. There are more than 1,000 physicists working on it and even more theorists whose ideas are waiting for results. “Most likely, everyone’s theory is wrong,” said Cohen. “We’ve had these ideas, we need the data. It’s going to be pretty nerve-wracking.”When he says this, Cohen looks truly worried. Then his face broadens as he comes back to Aspen and remembers the conversation about the Physics Center.”Everyone here is like me,” he said. “We do it because we love it.”
Last year, Kevin Ward started a free physics barbecue lecture series for kids. It features hot dogs, burgers, chips and all the fixings, as well as a space for kids to experiment with geodesic domes, rockets, homemade robots and other gadgets, all before a short talk by one of the physicists from the center.”You’re sitting there, eating a burger and thinking, here’s the dean of Yale physics being grilled by kids,” said Ward. The barbecues netted an attendance of 1,500 last summer.The Science Center, which Ward leads, has a goal of bringing the top science organizations in the country – the Physics Center, Fermilab, the DNA Learning Center – into the public sphere and into education. The Physics and Science Centers are further linked because Ruckenstein and Stranahan sit on the board of the Science Center. So the barbecues are part of a joint push to invite some of the physics brain power to radiate through the Aspen community. That push includes physics lectures and dialogues that are open to the public nearly every week through the summer and some of the winter.Further, Ruckenstein is bringing the Center into other public realms. As president, Ruckenstein did not run for office; rather it was a vote of confidence by his peers on the Center’s board. And he hopes that his three-year term will be one in which the physics center is maintained and moved forward.As part of that, he helped the Aspen Institute’s Ideas Festival to frame its recent discussions about global energy issues and has organized a separate conference for physicists to discuss global energy problems.”We’re trying to decide if physics can contribute to this,” said Ruckenstein. “We do want to preserve the ivory tower. It’s a thin line; they came to this ivory tower not because they don’t have a social conscience.”The tower must be maintained for the physicists to do their work. It wouldn’t be the Aspen Center for Physics if physicists could be interrupted while floating 100 million miles away in a neutron star. Ruckenstein believes the center’s main purpose can be steadily maintained while slightly broadening the scope. This year Ruckenstein, who started out college as a music major, has also initiated a loose relationship with the Aspen Music Festival, so that small groups can come play on the physics campus.”For me, it cannot be better,” said Ruckenstein, of having superb music and world-class physics in the same place. “It’s like dying and going to heaven. No, it’s like living and going to heaven.”Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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