Paul Andersen: Gazing at the universe from Aspen Physics

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

As a new reporter for The Aspen Times 34 years ago, I got dumped on. My list of beats came from castoffs from senior reporters who saw the new guy as an opportunity to foist off unwanted assignments. For me, it was a blessing.

I ended up with what became choice assignments — the Aspen Music Festival, the International Design Conference, the Aspen Institute and the Center for Theoretical Physics. I reported on the entire Meadows campus, the motherlode of Aspen’s cultural treasures.

How I loved to pedal over to the music tent for an interview with a star soloist, noted conductor or celebrated composer. Or sometimes just to observe a rehearsal as voyeur to casually dressed musicians artfully creating the sound that would fill the tent on Sunday.

How I enjoyed the Design Conference, a bold celebration of creative ideas from global luminaries channeled into manifestations both practical and impractical — always fascinating and mind-opening.

How I enjoyed exposure to current events through policy discussions at the Aspen Institute where the world comes to Aspen and access was encouraged for a curious Aspen Times reporter.

The most challenging, however, was reporting on the Center of Theoretical Physics, which comes to mind now as I consider the obituary of Leon Lederman, posted two weeks ago in The New York Times.

Aspen Physics sent out a notice: “Dear Members and Friends, We are sad to inform you that Leon Lederman passed away today at the age of 96.”

Lederman, an Aspen Physics fixture 30 years ago, was a shining star, a physicist who strove to explain the inexplicable to laymen like me by first humbling himself before the great mysteries of existence. In order for me to write something bordering on intelligible in The Aspen Times, I often had to be led by the hand to grasp even the most rudimentary elements of physics. Talk about abstractions!

The Meadows campus was, for me, a humbling experience; so great were the intellectual and artistic giants who strode the grounds. I soon discovered that my formal education was sorely lacking, and I upbraided myself as a slacker when met with genius among the sheltering aspen trees.

Lederman, in our few but cherished encounters, contributed to my explorations by being kind, amenable and graciously patient. And when I became thoroughly confounded, I had Nick DeWolf to act as interpreter.

Nick, an outrageous Aspen character with shoulder-length blond hair, became my mentor. He was a beloved physicist who created the computer program for the Hyman Avenue mall fountain. I loved Nick and his adorable wife, Maggie, for encouraging my forays into Aspen Physics, where I interviewed top scientists about black holes, dark matter, cosmology, neutrinos and more. Just gazing at the equations on their blackboards was heady.

I interviewed Hans Beta, famed German physicist and Nobel Laureate who, during World War II, headed the Theoretical Division at the top secret Los Alamos lab. In our interview, he debunked the Star Wars scheme of Ronald Reagan. Among other rock star physicists I met was Stephen Hawking.

A most startling epiphany came when physicist David Schramm described with nonchalant ease the overwhelming evidence that “dark matter” constitutes the bulk of our universe. Our carbon-based solar system, he surmised, is not even made of “the right stuff.” This was a most humbling moment for me, a lowly, carbon-based organism, and it still is.

In his obit, Lederman was pictured before a blackboard in a cardigan sweater, chomping a pipe; the archetypal brainiac. He won the Nobel Prize for his collaborative work on neutrinos. He served as director of Fermi Lab outside Chicago. He loved the mountains, and he died in rural Idaho in a place where nature eased his dementia with its grandeur and awe.

“I don’t have any real stories to tell,” he told the Associated Press in 2015, when asked to reflect on his dignified career, most of which was lost to his memory. “I sit on my deck and look at the mountains.”

One day, I may do the same — forget all else in the face of the great mysteries of the universe while gazing at the mountains.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at