The First 35 Years of the Aspen Center for Physics

by Jeremy Bernstein



Chapter I: A Spark Plug

George Stranahan

The Stranahan family came to the United States from Ireland in the nineteenth century. By the turn of the century Frank D. Stranahan was working as a night clerk in the Tremont Hotel in Boston. He earned enough money to put his younger brothers through Harvard. His brother Robert was the first Stranahan up to then to have graduated from Harvard. Robert married right after graduation and soon had “a daughter on his knee,” George Stranahan said in an interview for this book.

The two brothers opened a bicycle sales and repair shop in Boston apparently financed by their mother. The Stranahans thought that the automobile was the next big thing and they decided that their best bet in growing their business was through spark plugs, which in an internal combustion engine ignite the combustible fuel mixture at each cycle. The brothers had financed a French bicycle and motorcycle racer named Albert Champion who came to the United States largely to avoid being drafted into the French army. One of the curiosities of bicycle racing in France at the time was that the racers would race in a velodrome while being paced by small motorcycles. Champion couldn't find parts for his motorcycles in the U.S. so he started making spark plugs and selling them to friends. The Stranahans invested in and eventually acquired his fledgling business, Champion Ignition Company. They then made some of their own innovations, such as using porcelain as an insulator, a very important improvement for spark plugs. Up to that time they had to be changed every hundred miles or so, but the new insulator lasted a thousand miles. One curious consequence of their porcelain activities was that during the Second World War they made the porcelain filters that were used in one of the processes to separate the uranium isotopes used for nuclear weapons at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The brothers first moved to Rochester, New York and then to Toledo, Ohio, which was then the center of the automobile industry. They approached Henry Ford and convinced him that their new porcelain insulated spark plugs were just what he needed for his automobiles. In fact they offered them to Ford at cost. The brothers realized that since the spark plugs would have to be changed every thousand miles, the consumer would regularly be paying full price. It was a brilliant business model. It was such a good idea that before parting ways with Albert Champion, the Stranahans had sent him to Detroit to sell the idea to Alfred Sloan at General Motors. Communication was by telegraph in those days and the Stranahan brothers sent several to Champion to ask how things were going. They kept getting messages from Champion that he needed more time. Indeed he used the time to make his own deal with Sloan. Now there were two spark plug manufacturers – Champion – owned by the brothers and A.C. owned by Champion and General Motors.

Frank had an only son named Duane who also went to Harvard and majored in English literature. It was inevitable for Duane to go into the family business. But Duane's interest was aviation. He got his pilot's license in 1930 and took charge of Champion's aircraft engine spark plug business, but only after he had done apprenticeships starting in the mines in Colorado where the material for the ceramics was found. He married Virginia Secor and they had six children, four boys and two girls. The second oldest boy, George, was born in Toledo in 1931. The family lived in a fashionable suburb, Perrysburg, where George grew up with a cook, a nurse and a gardener who called him “master George.” By age twelve George had decided that he was going to be a scientist. He had been sent to a progressive private school, one which his mother had attended. But it was not close to his home and George found it very difficult to make friends with people his own age who lived in his neighborhood. “When I came home from school I would go to my room where I had books on astronomy and books on the Himalayas. That's how I would spend my time.” [Parenthetically on one of my trips to the Mount Everest region in Nepal, I found Stranahan and his wife comfortably ensconced in a tent. They had been trekking for weeks.] At this time it was customary for the children of what Stranahan refers to as the “nouveau riche” of Toledo to send their children to eastern boarding schools so that they could get into a good college. Stranahan was sent to Hotchkiss in Lakeville, Connecticut. Hotchkiss offered a classical education with Latin and Greek and ancient history. There was little science and Stranahan came to despise the place. He was, as he said, “lonely and nerdy and not from the East coast. I had a difficult four years.”

When it came time to apply for college he thought of MIT but he decided that he had had enough of the East coast. That applied to Harvard and Yale as well so he chose Caltech in Pasadena. He did very well on the entrance examination and was accepted. This was 1949 and much of his class was made up of returning soldiers on the GI Bill, some of whom had been recently been flying B–17 missions over Berlin. Stranahan again felt out of place. He did not much like the course work and fell in with some older students who spent their time playing partnership “hearts.” There is a good deal of strategy involved. It was an excellent training for bridge at which Stranahan became quite expert. His older hearts partners explained to Stranahan how he could game his Saturday quantitative analysis chemistry course and spend the time on the beach. Stranahan did not like the beginning physics courses either and began reading things on the quantum theory and relativity on his own. As a result of this he graduated 124th in a class of 126. However Caltech had a program for seniors which allowed them to become an apprentice to some professor of choice. Stranahan picked Leverett Davis Junior who was an astrophysicist.

Davis was an interesting man. He had taken his PhD at Caltech in 1941 and then spent the war working on rockets. He joined the Caltech faculty in 1946 and taught there until his retirement in 1981. In the 1960's he became involved with the space program. He was also a very nice man. Stranahan had made a wise choice. At the time Davis was interested in polarized starlight. This is light in which the waves oscillate in some fixed direction with respect to their direction of propagation. The starlight did not start out polarized but it interacted with some interstellar “dust” which must have also been polarized. The only way this could happen is if the dust had interacted with magnetic fields. Thus the polarized light was an indirect way of measuring interstellar magnetic fields. The first thing that Davis gave Stranahan to look at were pages and pages on yellow foolscap with algebraic calculations. They concerned the collision between a dust cloud and hydrogen gas. Stranahan recalled,” He said that I should check the algebra. I had never done such a thing–forty or fifty pages of algebra. It was wonderful. I felt as if I was doing something real. Then he said “I have an interesting problem you can do all by yourself.” The problem concerned the degree of polarization and hence the strength of the magnetic fields. Stranahan was able to publish the results in The Astrophysical Review a prestigious peer–reviewed journal. He was then in the odd position of having a mediocre academic record but also having a published research paper. He sought advice from Richard Feynman who had recently joined the faculty and had a large tolerance for the eccentric.

Feynman said to Stranahan, “You're not going to get into a very good graduate school. Let me give you a list of competent ones.” On the list was the Carnegie Institute of Technology–now Carnegie–Mellon–in Pittsburgh. Stranahan thinks that Carnegie was glad to have him because he was a “Caltechy” and he had chosen them over Caltech. In truth it was unlikely that Stranahan would have gotten into the graduate school at Caltech. As it happened Carnegie had a very fine physics department whose leading light was Gian–Carlo Wick who had been there since 1951. Wick had been one of Enrico Fermi's assistants in Rome and then accepted professorships in other Italian universities, finally returning to Rome during the war. After the war he went to Berkeley but when the Regents of the University of California introduced a loyalty oath that the professors had to sign, he quit, which is how he ended up at Carnegie. He ultimately became a professor at Columbia University. He had an international reputation as one the best physicists of his era.

By this time Stranahan had become sufficiently interested in physics that he decided to work hard at it. But there was a problem–the Korean War. Stranahan was of draft age. He noted that Perrysburg, where he lived, was a farm community and that they were not going to draft farm boys who were needed to grow crops, but he was a perfect candidate. His mother told him that he should promptly marry his child–hood sweetheart and perhaps as a married man he might be deferred. But then his mother gummed up the works. The postmaster in Perrysburg also was in charge of the draft board. The Stranahans had a subscription to Life magazine. The postmaster took the new issues home to read before he delivered them. After a year of this Mrs. Stranahan, who was a very forceful personality, told the postmaster in no uncertain terms that he should take someone else's magazine home. He responded by saying that he was going to make sure that all her boys were drafted. Stranahan found himself at Fort Knox, Kentucky where he participated in morning bayonet exercises, which he found ironic considering that we had the atomic bomb. Stranahan was sent to Fort Monmouth to study radar repair. Considering his record at Caltech he was amused by the fact that he scored close to 100% on all the tests. By this time Stranahan had had his second child. Despite this he was scheduled to be shipped overseas. But bridge saved him. He had become the bridge partner of the battalion clerk. He was so good that whenever Stranahan's name appeared on the list to be shipped out, the battalion clerk simply erased it. “My wasted life at Caltech saved me from going to Korea.”

Physics in Aspen Colorado?

While he was in the army Stranahan's wage was $50 a month with an additional family allowance of $150 a month. Out of this he was paying a monthly rent of $80. At this time his parents came to visit him. They explained that his paternal grandmother had died leaving his father as her primary beneficiary. There was a tremendous tax burden which could be lifted if some of the money was given to her grandchildren. This is what they were going to do. Stranahan inquired whether he could draw an additional $200 a month from it. Since his share of the legacy was $3 million, this was not a problem. Stranahan got out of the army in 1956 and returned to Carnegie to do his PhD. One of Wick's students, Richard Cutkosky, was then a young faculty member and he took Stranahan on as his student. But before Stranahan returned to Pittsburgh for the fall semester he decided that he needed a couple of weeks to himself. He returned to Aspen, Colorado where his family had come to ski as early as 1949. Aspen in the summer was really nice so he decided that the next summer he would come back with his family. They rented a five–bedroom house for $400 for the summer. The owner tossed in the use of his jeep. He repeated his summer Aspen visits for the next two summers. At first he thought that he could do his thesis work just as well there as in Pittsburgh. All he needed was paper and pencil and a few books. But he found that he couldn't work. There were too many temptations such as fishing and hiking. Also something was missing, other physicists to talk to.

Physics is a very social activity although to an onlooker it may not seem so. The example of Einstein is cited. Einstein once said that the ideal occupation for a theoretical physicist was as a lighthouse keeper. There would be no students to teach and one would be free to do one's work without interference. But Einstein overlooked the context. He had had a fine education in the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School in Zurich where he had learned basic physics and mathematics. It is true that after he became a patent inspector in Berne in 1904 he did not have many people to talk to about physics. But soon after his great papers of 1905, including the work on Special Theory of Relativity, he was in contact with many other physicists. Einstein's scientific correspondence is so voluminous that one wonders where he found the time to do anything else–a lighthouse keeper indeed. I am persuaded that scientific genius is universally distributed. There is about as much chance of finding such a genius in Nepal as in Denmark. The difference is context. In Denmark a scientific genius like Niels Bohr is recognized and nurtured while, at least until relatively recently, a scientific genius in Nepal was probably unnoticed or became a religious figure. At some point in the summer of 1959 Stranahan found that he could no longer work. His mind simply shut down. “Physics simply does not work as a solitary activity. You have to have somebody to talk to. We need a physics think tank in Aspen.” At this point Stranahan was introduced to Robert Craig.

Robert Craig and the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies

Craig was and is an interesting character. In 1949 he took degrees in philosophy and biology from the University of Washington in Seattle. He had served in the navy during World War II and had participated in some major amphibious operations. During the Korean War he taught mountain and cold weather techniques at Fort Carson in Colorado. That he taught mountaineering to soldiers was not an accident; Craig was one of the best American climbers. He had been selected for an American expedition to climb K2. K2, on the Chinese–Pakistan border, is the second highest mountain in the world and technically more difficult than Everest. High on the mountain one of the climbers, Art Gilkey, got thrombophlebitis, a blood clot condition which can be fatal even if treated at sea level. The rest of the climbers decided that they had to get him down as soon as possible and began a very difficult descent with an injured man. At one point they had a fall and were held on a belay by Pete Schoening. Gilkey had been tied off before the fall and when they went to look for him he had disappeared. What happened no one knows. From 1953 to 1965 Craig held various executive positions at what was then known as The Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies. This had been the conception of Walter Paepcke, chairman of the Container Corporation of America which had its headquarters in Chicago. Paepcke and his wife Elizabeth had been coming to Aspen since the mid 1940's when there was hardly a town. Paepcke saw its potential as a ski resort and began investing in it. He also saw its possibilities as a cultural center where business people like him could enjoy the out of doors and enlarge their cultural perspectives. He was a trustee at the University of Chicago and was impressed by the educational experiments of its young president Robert Hutchins. Hutchins and the philosopher Mortimer Adler conceived the idea of studying what they identified as the “great books.” Adler was particularly fond of Aristotle and the businessmen who came to Aspen starting in 1950 got a good dose of the Stagirian. Of science there was none.

A mutual friend arranged for a dinner where Craig and Stranahan met. He explained to Craig his idea of having a research center in physics in Aspen. “Bob immediately liked the idea,” Stranahan recalled. Stranahan had a clear idea of what this center was not going to be–a summer school. At the time there were summer schools in physics. Two of the best known were in the French Alps at Les Houches and at Cargèse on the island of Corsica, where I taught for three summers. A friend of mine referred to these activities as the leisure of the theory class. These places offered mini–courses in advanced subjects to graduate students. The faculty, distinguished senior physicists, got a free semi–vacation in return for teaching and writing up their lectures in a publishable form. Stranahan wanted none of this. There were going to be no students and no courses. On the contrary, physicists could do their research free of any academic responsibilities. It was recognized that these would be largely theoretical physicists since experimenters would need equipment and staffs to help run it. Craig agreed. Stranahan recalled Craig's saying, “We have an Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies. People come from industry and academia. They cross in Aspen and then they all go home. We need something active where you can see people thinking, something permanent.” By this time Walter Paepcke, who was to die in 1960, was no longer active and the new regime at the Institute, which was going to be headed by the oilman R.O. Anderson, was not yet in place so that Craig was in a position to make all the decisions with the consent of the existing board of directors who approved having a physics division of the Aspen Institute under the condition that the Institute would not be expected to provide any of the money.

This was now 1961. Stranahan had just received his PhD and he set about raising money for the new physics institute. He made a deal with Craig. Stranahan would raise all the money he could from Aspen locals and from the industrialists coming to the Institute and he would personally cover whatever shortfall there was. There was going to be a building. The building cost $85,000 and Stranahan put in $38,000. But well before there was a building, Stranahan had begun consulting physicists as to how to operate such an institution. One of the people he consulted was one of his teachers at Carnegie, Michel Baranger. Baranger said, “You must get to know Michael Cohen. Cohen who consults at Los Alamos has this dream of making a tent city outside Los Alamos where physicists could just come with their summer salaries and just do their physics. You need to meet Cohen.” The irony is that at the time that Stranahan was at Caltech, Cohen was there doing his PhD thesis with Feynman. They had never met and now Cohen was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. When he heard about it, Cohen was immediately interested. He, Craig and Stranahan met in the airport in Pittsburgh. Stranahan reported that Cohen said, “I know everybody in physics and Craig said that he knew people in Washington. My job was to make sure we had a building. Craig's job was to make sure we had a government grant and Cohen's job was to make sure people came, and sure enough it worked.” In the summer of 1962 the Stranahan building at the end of the then unpaved Sixth Street on the west side of Aspen opened its doors to the first group of physicists to visit what became the Aspen Center for Physics.

Chapter II