The First 35 Years of the Aspen Center for Physics

by Jeremy Bernstein



Chapter III Hilbert

The 1960's

The Physics Center I encountered in June of 1969, my first visit, differed in several respects from the Center of 1962, its first year. Firstly there was the second building–Hilbert. This was the unheated wooden structure that had been constructed to house a group from what was then called The National Accelerator Laboratory–now the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory outside Chicago. This group had decided that Aspen would be a good place to do their planning for the new accelerator and the director, Robert Wilson, had had the structure constructed. When the study group moved on, Wilson gave the building to the Center and it was named “Hilbert.” A rakish photograph of David Hilbert wearing a sun hat hung in what passed for the lobby.

There were also changes in and around Stranahan Hall. There was now an administrative office. It was shared by Stranahan and Sally Hume Mencimer, a former school teacher, who had been hired to do the administration of what was developing into a larger enterprise. Her husband Bill had been a rancher and a ski pioneer. He had a wide mechanical skill set and took care of the four acres of grounds as well as the large fleet of bicycles which could be borrowed by the participants during their stays. Behind Stranahan a covered patio had been built. It had blackboards and could be used for the seminars which were now a permanent fixture. Indeed that summer there was a week–long workshop on pulsars which made use of the patio. There was also a volleyball court that the physicists used with a good deal of enthusiasm. But there were changes that were not visible.

After Craig was forced out of the Institute management in 1965, the Institute severed its formal ties with the Center. They still owned the land and the buildings but now the Center was a separate 501(c)3 non–profit corporation. It was responsible for its own books and was required to have a board of trustees with given responsibilities. The non–scientific members of the board were Craig, who still had interests in Aspen, and Robert O. Anderson, the oilman whose financial backing kept the Institute afloat. Anderson was an interesting man. He had been born in Chicago in 1917. His father was an oil and gas banker. Anderson spent his summer vacations from the University of Chicago working as a pipeline maintenance worker in Texas. He then went to work for an oil company, borrowed $50,000, and bought a one third share of a refinery in New Mexico. He soon bought other refineries and in 1957 discovered the Empire–Abo–Field in southeastern New Mexico. Six years later he merged with the Atlantic Refining Company of Philadelphia which in turn became the Atlantic Richfield Company–ARCO–and Anderson became extremely rich. He also developed an Aspen connection, part of which involved Herbert Bayer.

The story goes that Anderson was walking in Aspen and he came upon an ultra-modern Bauhaus designed house, liked what he saw, and knocked on the front door and introduced himself to the house's owner, which was Bayer who also had designed it. That began a life–long friendship. Bayer designed the ARCO logo and supervised its acquisition of the world's largest corporate art collection. Not only did Anderson have an interest in art, but he seems to have done things like staging the performance of Shakespeare plays on his ranch in New Mexico. He was also a physically imposing figure. He could also be maddening. The one thing that the physicists wanted from him was their land. Anderson could have done this with a stroke of a pen but he kept putting the matter off. At one meeting of the Center's Board of Trustees he lectured the physicists on the virtue of trickle–down agriculture of the kind practiced on the terraced fields of Asia. At the other end of the professional spectrum of board members was Hans Bethe who had recently won the Nobel Prize and Murray Gell–Mann who would win it that fall. I have discussed Bethe in the last chapter. Here I want to say something about Gell–Mann.

Murray Gell–Mann

He was born on September 15, 1929 in Manhattan to a family with Austro–Hungarian origins. In 1937, at the age of 8, he entered the 10th grade at the Columbia Grammar School in Manhattan, having skipped a few grades. He graduated in 1944 valedictorian of his class. I was then a sophomore at the same school but we never met until many years later although our common math teacher, James Reynolds, often referred to him as an example we could not hope to emulate. At age fifteen he was admitted to Yale where he studied physics. He applied to several places for graduate school. In some he was turned down and in others he was accepted but without the scholarship he needed. He was finally accepted at MIT to which he went with considerable reluctance. But he came under the supervision of Victor Weisskopf, a first–rate physicist and a wonderful teacher. Weisskopf recommended him to Robert Oppenheimer who was then the director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. In 1951 Gell–Mann began a stay at the Institute. It was here that his remarkable abilities began to be exhibited. While he was at MIT he had met Marvin Goldberger, “Murph,” who was there on leave from the University of Chicago. Goldberger, who was also an Aspen trustee that summer, told me that when he returned to Chicago he told Fermi, who was a professor at the University of Chicago, that he must hire Gell–Mann and he did. Fermi died in 1954 of cancer and with his death, much of the Chicago physics department left, including Gell–Mann who went to Caltech in 1955. He went in part because Feynman was there and the two of them collaborated for some years. I had the chance of working with Gell–Mann in Paris in the years 1959–1960 when he was struggling with the ideas that soon after led him to his unifying theory of elementary particles and the quark. While Bethe conferred the prestige of the older generation on the Center, Gell–Mann's presence attracted the younger generation. Many of them timed their Aspen visits to overlap with his. He was sufficiently taken by the place to use some of his Nobel Prize money to buy a blue Victorian house in Aspen. Other visitors to the Center eventually bought places in Aspen.

The First Years

The Board of Trustees had officers. Among them was Stranahan as president and Craig and Gell–Mann as vice presidents. Michael Cohen was elected treasurer. But Sally Hume Mencimer paid the bills and kept the books. The treasurer's report was rather simple. As of mid–summer there was $14,700 in cash in hand. Donations and grants of $25,500 had come in. The Sloan Foundation had given $20,000. There was a gift of $5,000 from Duane Stranahan, George's father, and $500 had come from Bethe. That summer the Center would cater to close to a hundred physicists so it was a lean budget.

In addition to volleyball the principal recreation of the physicists was hiking and climbing. If you took some remote trail on a Saturday you stood a good chance of finding a physicist. During the week you might find several on the Ute Trail, an exercise trail that led part way up Aspen Mountain. The Ute Indians were the original occupants of the valley and the town was originally called Ute City until the name was changed to Aspen in 1880. Hiking and climbing were taken very seriously. A large topographical map was installed on a wall in Stranahan and by Wednesday, groups of physicists could be found studying it to plot that weekend's adventure. There was no decent hiking or climbing guide to the area so the physicists wrote one. It contained general advice such as, “Sneakers are not at all satisfactory on snow. The terrain and trails around Aspen tend to be very rocky and boots can make even a short trip much more comfortable. Nevertheless, sneakers are very nice on day trails.” It warns against drinking water from the streams which are contaminated with Giardia very likely spread by beavers. There is a warning about lightning. “ It is not uncommon on the higher peaks and open slopes. Leave early on long climbs, and plan to be off the top by noon, when the weather is likely to move in. The best precaution is to watch the weather, turn back if lightning moves in, or if caught, take shelter in the lowest spot around. It's no fun to be in an exposed spot.” Physicists reported that they had been in places where their ice axes buzzed when an electrical storm moved in. The guide explains the routes on simple family day hikes to climbs of some of the nearby 14,000–foot mountains.

At the end of their stays the physicists were encouraged to write brief reports. A few said that they were from remote universities and that this was the only time they were able to interact with other physicists. Many said that they were relieved to be away from the pressures of university life such as faculty meetings and deans. One gets a sense from the reports what was of special interest to physicists at the time. A few discuss things that would later turn into string theory which became a Center specialty. Bethe's report is especially interesting, He lists his second Center stay from August 4 to September 12, 1969. He writes in part, “I attended the conference on pulsars from August 19 to 23. Many interesting papers were presented which made the present status of the subject very clear to me, who had essentially no previous knowledge of it.” He then describes some of the physics he did but notes, “On August 7, I gave a public lecture on ABM (anti–ballistic missiles ) in Paepcke Auditorium, [this was and is a large auditorium on the Institute campus] discussing why, in my opinion, ABM will not contribute to the security of the U.S.” The physicists were reaching out to the community to share their knowledge.

Chapter IV