Guest commentary: Honoring Stranahan’s passion for creating Aspen Center for Physics |

Guest commentary: Honoring Stranahan’s passion for creating Aspen Center for Physics

Josh Frieman
Guest commentary

George Stranahan, who passed away Thursday at the age of 89, was truly a Renaissance Man — scientist, educator, community activist, accomplished photographer, philanthropist, cattle rancher, restaurateur, entrepreneur — to name just a few of the pursuits at which he excelled. Over the past six decades, George had an outsized impact on the town of Aspen and on the Roaring Fork Valley as a founder and builder of institutions that have enriched the lives of many, in the best humanistic tradition embodied in the “Aspen Idea.“

George founded or co-founded, among others, the Aspen Community School, the Valley Settlement Project, the Manaus Fund, Woody Creek Tavern, Flying Dog Brewery and the Woody Creek Community Center (and lent his name to Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey). He had chaired the Aspen Community Foundation, published the Mountain Gazette and was once part owner of this newspaper. Yet the thing that brought George to Aspen was physics, and the first institution that he built here was the Aspen Center for Physics, which is now in its 60th year.

As a graduate student in theoretical physics at the Carnegie Institute of Science (now Carnegie Mellon University), George spent the summers of 1957-59 in Aspen with his family, “doing physics.“ In the third summer, he had an important realization: ”I cannot do physics alone, I have to have someone to talk to.”

From this epiphany the Aspen Center for Physics was born: physicists would come to Aspen for the summer, to exchange ideas and work collaboratively. George teamed up with Michael Cohen of the University of Pennsylvania and Robert Craig of the Aspen Institute to turn his vision into reality. What started as the Physics Division of the Aspen Institute in 1962 became an independent nonprofit, the Aspen Center for Physics, in 1968, with George as its first president and chair of the Board of Trustees. The first building on the Physics Center campus at the corner of Sixth and Gillespie streets in Aspen was Stranahan Hall, designed by Herbert Bayer. The Physics Center, along with the neighboring Aspen Institute and Music Tent, form a unique, cultural and intellectual triangle in the West End.

Building on George’s original vision, the Physics Center has grown in myriad ways over the years. When it opened in 1962, the Center had 42 physicists in attendance during the summer.

Now, the Center welcomes over 1,000 physicists each year — from Nobel prize winners to scientists just starting their careers — who come from around the world for summer workshops and winter conferences on topics ranging from astrophysics to biological physics to the physics of condensed matter and the physics of elementary particles.

The Physics Center provides an important venue for quiet contemplation and informal interaction, away from the distractions of the daily routine, and its creative atmosphere has spawned a number of important developments in theoretical physics, including superstring theory. The ideas exchanged and the professional connections made at the Center are long lasting and often career- and life-changing.

In George’s spirit, the Physics Center is not an ivory tower. Every week during the summer and winter sessions, the Center hosts a public lecture by a dynamic speaker on a topic of cutting-edge research, plus informal “physics cafes” in the winter. And every Wednesday evening during the summer the Center hosts a kids’ BBQ, with hands-on science activities and an informal talk by a physicist aimed at a younger audience, in concert with the Aspen Science Center, which George also co-founded.

I first met George — to me a legendary figure whose name and photo adorned the building where I had an office — when he gave one of these kids’ talks in tandem with Walter Isaacson, who had just published his biography of Albert Einstein. While Walter talked about Einstein the human being, George explained the finer points of his Theory of Special Relativity to the assembled 10-year-old children.

Although the Aspen Center for Physics has evolved substantially from its founding, it still follows the spirit of George’s original insight: “I cannot do physics alone. I have to have someone to talk to.” Thanks to that insight and vision, tens of thousands of physicists have come to Aspen over the decades to talk to each other, and many of us are drawn back every year by the magic of this special place that he created. On behalf of the Physics Center and those tens of thousands: Thank you, George.

Josh Frieman is the president of the Aspen Center for Physics, a professor of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Chicago, and a distinguished scientist with the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

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