The First 35 Years of the Aspen Center for Physics

by Jeremy Bernstein



Chapter VII Per Aspera

Smart Hall

The need for larger quarters was apparent at the Center after only a few years of operation and became more acute with each passing year. It became more and more difficult to satisfy all the constraints. In the first place there would never be more than two physicists to an office. Secondly stays shorter than three weeks were discouraged. One could not do any real research in a flying visit. Thirdly one wanted to admit as many new people each year as possible while still re–admitting previous visitors who had shown themselves to be valuable. There simply was not enough space. In one of my early summer visits I was assigned an office in a nearby house that the Center had rented for the summer. Those of us who were there felt a little detached. Fourthly there was no real auditorium. A blackboard had been installed on the back patio of Stranahan. The patio had no roof so that when it rained in the afternoon as it often did, the physicists had to crowd themselves into the coffee room. Bethe, when it was built, had a large room in which chairs could be set up. Most of the Center's physicists could squeeze in.

There was one notable visit where the Bethe meeting room came in handy – this was the visit of Margaret Thatcher on August 4, 1990. The Institute was having a fortieth anniversary and both she and George H. W. Bush were speakers. For reasons unclear, the British embassy informed the Center that Mrs. Thatcher wanted to pay a visit. It is true that she had studied chemistry at Oxford with, among others, the Nobelist Dorothy Hodgkin, but how she had heard of the Physics Center remains a mystery. As it happened I was the only officer around at the time so I drew the duty. A little program of talks was organized. The British physicists participating in Aspen at the time were very angry with her for cuts she had made in the universities, but they were persuaded that this was not the occasion to air their grievances. Shortly before she arrived a couple of conservatively dressed Scotland Yard people dropped by and searched various wastebaskets. Then she appeared in a chauffeur–driven car with no escort. I greeted her and escorted her to the meeting room. I gave the introduction in which I said that I felt as if I already knew her. She looked surprised and I explained that I watched “Prime Minister's Question Time” on CSPAN. She listened politely to the talks, had a spot of tea and left. She could not have been more charming and we received an autographed picture in the mail as a souvenir.

Once the Center acquired its land, which attached a permanence to the whole operation, the prospects of a new building became very real, if only enough money – something like $3 million – could be raised. In such an enterprise the Center found itself at a disadvantage. Throughout its history the Center, unlike the Music Associates or the Institute, had never asked anyone in the community for money. Our money came from grants like that of the National Science Foundation and from registration fees of a few hundred dollars that were charged to participants. This was enough to balance the books and leave a bit as a reserve for emergencies. Moreover our participants were university professors who were living on academic salaries. While they might well be willing to help, there was a limit as to what they would be able to contribute.

In 1994 the Center decided to hire the firm of Walter Plotch, a consulting firm that specialized in this kind of inquiry. It had done a similar job for the American Physical Society. Plotch was to try to find out what sort of support might be available from the Aspen community. Sometime in the fall, Tom Appelquist, a physics professor at Yale and president of the Physics Center and I, as vice president, met Plotch in New York to learn what he had found out. The results were not promising. Plotch had canvassed a number of well–to–do Aspenites. While they liked us and wished us well the amount they would be willing to give towards a new building was limited. He could only identify about a million dollars in potential donations. Plotch encouraged us to scale back our plans. I think that both Appelquist and I left that meeting pretty discouraged. The situation looked bleak. But what we had not had taken into account was the figure of David Schramm as well as the amount of wealth that was potentially available.

David Schramm

First Schramm. Schramm was a Bunyanesque figure. He had red hair and stood at six–feet four–inches and weighed some 245 pounds. While at MIT he had been a champion Greco–Roman wrestler and was an alternate on the Olympic team. Once at a Center party I asked him what Greco–Roman wrestling was. He explained that it did not allow holds below the waist and to illustrate he lifted me off the ground over his head as if I was made of feathers. He was an excellent mountaineer who had climbed in several countries. He took his PhD at Cal Tech with the Nobelist William Fowler. His interest was cosmology and he was instrumental in creating the cosmology group at the University of Chicago where he was a professor. At the time I am describing he was chairman of the Center's Board of Trustees.

Schramm was determined that the Center would have a new building and once Schramm was determined about something he was pretty hard to stop. The trustees took a vote and even though it was not clear where the money would come from the building was approved. I got a flavor of how things were going to go not long after the meeting. Schramm came into my office. He said that the trustees had to set an example in the money–giving realm and asked me how much I was going to give. As I recall I said $500, which seemed like a comfortable amount. Schramm announced that my share would be $7,000, an absurd amount. I might have refused but as it happened I was then enjoying an odd financial windfall. A little earlier a woman had called from Washington state. She said that she was an editor of some project that was putting together cameo biographies of physicists, a couple of hundred words each. She said that she had hired someone to do them but was not satisfied with the results. She had gotten my name and asked if I would re–write them. This was not something I had much enthusiasm for so I said something like, “You can't afford me.” She asked how much I wanted and I said, as I recall, $150 per biography. She said that would be fine and that she would send me an agreement to sign along with a sample set of the biographies. To be sure, in a couple of days the agreement arrived along with the biographies. They were terrible, badly written and full of errors. It took me about twenty minutes per biography to sort them out. I sent them back and a check was forthcoming. This went on for much of the summer and I accumulated the $7,000, which I gave to the Center. Finally she said that she had run out of biographies and would I like to write some myself. I had had enough so I thanked her and refused. But then I asked who was actually paying for this? “Bill Gates,” she said. So Bill Gates contributed indirectly $7,000 to the construction of the Center's new building.

Donors were found, some of which I, at least, had never heard of. The three most generous were the Smart Family Foundation of Connecticut, Martin Flug, a local businessman who had been interested in physics since his undergraduate days at Harvard and Gerald Hosier, a patent attorney. The Smart Foundation donation was the largest gift, and was arranged by A. Douglas Stone, a Yale physicist and a frequent visitor to the Center. The gift was donated in memory of his mother Sue Smart Stone, who was a published poet; Stone read one of her poems at the dedication of what was named “Smart Hall.” Stone had been coming to the Center since he had taken his PhD, and felt that its environment was unique, and that his visits there had had a major impact on the development of his career. It became clear that enough money would be in hand in pledges or in cash so that a building would certainly be built. It required about $3 million. Thus an architect had to be selected. Schramm was single minded about this. It had to be Harry Teague. Teague, like McGrath, is one of those very talented people who could have practiced anywhere. He had grown up in New Jersey, attended Dartmouth and then the Yale School of Architecture. He was a very enthusiastic skier and outdoors person so Aspen fitted his life style. He had set up his own firm and by the mid–1990's had won several awards for innovative architectural designs. One of them was the Harris Concert Hall of the Music Associates, which had been built a few years earlier and was widely acclaimed. It was clear that if Teague designed the building it would be more than functional. It would be a kind of statement. The first question was where to locate it? Teague decided that it had to be located to the south and west of Stranahan. This would save an aspen grove. Hilbert Hall was removed in sections and donated to the Deaf Camp a few miles away.

These building plans had to be cleared with the city. Some of the neighbors were not entirely happy with them. A suggestion was made that we put a large part of our building underground like nearby Harris Hall. William Frazer, a physicist and also a vice president of the Center, had been chosen because of his diplomatic skills to plead before the city the case of an above–ground building. He told the then mayor John Bennett that physics was a spiritual pursuit that needed an unobstructed view of the mountains. Frazer was persuasive and the below–ground building matter dropped. An interesting aspect was that the new building's western extremity would abut one of the Hadid houses. The Center started a tree fund to plant a barrier. The landscaping is now so extensive that one hardly notices. Looking at it, it is hard to imagine the convoluted history of that land. The building, completed in 1996, is known as Smart Hall, with the lobby and office section named after Hosier, two meeting alcoves named after Nobel Laureates who donated funds, Murray Gell–Mann and John Bardeen, and the then state–of–the–art auditorium named to honor Flug's father Samuel. Flug Forum has one red chair commemorating Bill Frazer, among the 90 black chairs. The construction budget was so tight that the proposed auditorium seats were hard wooden chairs reminiscent of college classrooms. Frazer, a board member, donated $10,000 to upgrade to cushioned seats. He said, “Tell the physicists I saved their asses.”

Winter Conferences

The existence of this auditorium enabled the Center to host on its own campus additional public events that reached out to the community. It also helped with an activity that had been going on at the Center since the mid 1980's. It had occurred to several people that in a certain sense the facilities were under used. They were really used fully for only the four months of the summer. The question came up, could they also be used somehow in the winter? But none of the suggestions seemed to make much sense. The first idea that stuck was due to the Northwestern University professor, Martin Block. Block has a home in Aspen and was an avid skier. He had attended winter conferences in the Alps, which took place in various ski stations. He saw no reason why one should not have similar conferences in Aspen. This idea was greeted with mixed enthusiasm but Block was persistent. One objection was the cost. But Block's idea was that the conferences should be held for a few weeks after New Years. This was a lull in the ski season in Aspen and he figured he could get reasonable room rates. In fact a survey showed that it would be less expensive to hold a conference in Aspen than in Evanston, Illinois. The conferences have been an immense success. There are three hours of lectures in the morning and three more hours in the afternoon after the ski slopes have shut down. There is a single subject matter in each of the weeks the conference is held. The new auditorium had all the technological devices needed for a scientific lecture.

Public Lectures

The winter conferences, under the guidance of Martin Block and his wife, Beate, also cemented the tradition of offering free winter public lectures at the Wheeler Opera House and free summer lectures at Paepcke Auditorium [see Chapter IV]. The Blocks contacted Maggie DeWolf, who doubted that attendance would be good for a physics lecture, but gamely organized the first lectures. In honor of enormous time and financial contributions from Maggie and the late Nick DeWolf, who have both served as Center board members, [Maggie as an honorary member, Nick as a general member] the winter lecture series now bears their names. Visiting Italian physicists in 2008 were amazed at the public attendance in Aspen, which far exceeds any number they can hope for a community lecture in Rome. Steven Chu, Secretary of Energy under President Barack Obama, set the record for public lecture attendance by packing the Wheeler Opera House in 2003 with 530 locals and visitors.

One of Schramm's many skill sets was as an airplane pilot. He owned his own plane and had taken the tests needed to become an airline pilot. On Friday December 19th, 1997 he was flying his plane from Chicago to Aspen to spend Christmas with his family. He stopped at a small regional Colorado airport to re–fuel. The conditions were wintry and after he took off, the plane crashed and he was killed. He was 52.

Chapter VIII