In the age of America’s founding fathers, literacy in the scientific advances of the Age of Enlightenment was considered a prerequisite in civil society, according to Aspen Institute President Walter Isaacson, who wrote a biography on Benjamin Franklin.
“You’d be a philistine” if you admitted to having no understanding of science in those days, Isaacson said at a panel on Saturday, titled “Public Engagement in Science,” part of the week’s 50th anniversary celebrations for the Aspen Center for Physics.
Something changed, however, in the 20th century, and it might be the fault of another of Isaacson’s biography subjects — Albert Einstein. General relatively, quantum theory and their derivative fields of study are a bit headier than Newtonian mechanics, and now, “people can admit they don’t get physics,” Isaacson said, during a discussion that emphasized the need for more literacy in the sciences in the United States. It’s socially acceptable to not even try to understand quarks, string theory and the difference between a proton and a photon. The same can’t be said for literature and math, where basic literacy is expected.
That’s a shame and an injustice, according to the panelists at the Paepcke Auditorium on Saturday, who included an astronaut, the head of the National Science Foundation and the New York Times science writer who covered this week’s Higgs boson particle discovery in Switzerland from the physics center in Aspen.
The benefits of doing science for science’s sake ripple out into society in more ways than one can imagine, said Subra Suresh, the director of the National Science Foundation, which spends $7.2 billion a year — about as much as Americans spend on potato chips annually — funding science. Over the years, the Aspen Center for Physics has been a consistent beneficiary. The center is funded by grants and fees paid by visiting physicists.
Aspen residents could be forgiven for regarding the Aspen Center for Physics as “cute but nerdy,” said George Stranahan, the valley icon who co-founded the center 50 years ago.
“They’d be quite correct,” he said with a laugh. But it’s a little more than just “cute.”
“It’s the pinnacle of theoretical physics,” said Stranahan, who holds a doctorate in physics from Carnegie Mellon University and founded the center so he could have other physicists to talk to while exploring the mysteries of the universe in an isolated mountain hideaway.
Fifty years later, the institution still tries to maintain the open-ended spirit with which it was founded. Each summer, between 800 and 1,000 theoretical physicists apply to come to Aspen for two to four weeks, and about 500 are accepted. They range from graduate students to Nobel laureates, 52 of whom have attended over the years. They may be interested in one of the two-week workshops that are offered over the 16-week season, or simply looking for a tranquil environment to work and the chance to interact with other physicists.
“We discourage meetings,” said Patty Fox, the physics center’s public relations manager. Scheduled activities are limited to a few hours a day at most, and are completely voluntary. Interaction is what the center is after. Throughout the three buildings on the four-acre campus at Sixth and Gillespie streets in the West End neighborhood, are dozens of chalkboards, all of which were marked up with equations, graphs, and other instruments of the enigmatic language of physics.
Admissions policy at the center sees to it that at any given time, about 40 percent of the visiting physicists are first-timers in Aspen. Each physicist shares an office; room assignments are generated at random, with the only criteria being that no two people from the same institution can share the same office.
The center also tries to focus its mission on advancing discovery and asking questions, as opposed to presenting answers.
“They come in with a problem,” Fox said of the typical summer attendee. “They talk to their colleagues and their colleagues talk back.”
According to past president of the physics center, Pierre Ramond, “There’s been a long tradition in theoretical physics of going to the mountains.” Isolation and useful distractions like mountain climbing provide an environment where the mechanical processes of academic life can be cast aside, and one can “stop calculating and start thinking,” said Ramond, a University of Florida professor who’s come to the physics center nearly every summer since 1970.
Stranahan, who’s grandfather was an innovator behind Champion Sparkplugs in the early days of the auto industry, had a mediocre undergraduate record as a physics student at Cal Tech in Pasadena, but some of his research also had been published. While working on his Ph.D. in the late ’50s and early ’60s, he decided to spend his summer months in Aspen, where he could rent a home for his family and the use of a Jeep for $400 for three months.
For 50 years, the center has provided a “circle of serenity” for physicists to work, but that circle for a time existed in the middle of the turbulent seas of Aspen land-use politics.
The center became a collaboration with the Aspen Institute, which agreed to launch a physics program on a portion of its property. At various points in the center’s existence, it was threatened with destruction. For one, the academic salaries of the center’s main participants couldn’t support the big donations the Aspen Institute could rely on from the captains of industry that fund the rest of its programs. The land also was ensnared in the Hans Cantrup bankruptcy that involved all of the Aspen Meadows and Aspen Institute land, as well as the slopeside parcel that became the St. Regis hotel. Eventually, by the late 1980s, the physics center had secured title to its land, in the wake of the Cantrup bankruptcy, after rallying the community around the notion that its existence was a critical part of the “Aspen Idea” — balancing the mind, body and spirit. The term “circle of serenity” was coined to describe the campus and its immediate surroundings, and was used to great effect in a political battle over whether to turn the center’s land into residential development.
Part of the physics center’s mission is public engagement. There is a lecture series each winter at the Wheeler Opera House sponsored by the local DeWolf family, and public presentations throughout the summer. The Aspen Science Center, a separate organization, also has put on the successful “Physics is for Kids” series on the center’s grounds, with physicists from the center volunteering time to give presentations.
On Friday, the Flug Auditorium on the center’s campus was filled to capacity for a talk on the significance of the Higgs particle discovery. Michigan State University professor Elizabeth Simmons explained that, as amazing as the discovery is, it opens the door to even more questions about the nature of the physical universe. She said the Higgs particle “allows energy to be packaged as mass.”
To find evidence of the particle, which was first theorized almost 40 years ago, teams of thousands of scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research used the Large Hadron Collider — or the “most complex machine ever built,” according to Saturday panelist Lawrence Krauss — to simulate millions of high-speed collisions between packets of protons. The machine allows the protons to make 11,000 trips around the 18-mile-long ring every second, so that there are 600 million collisions each second between the particles, each recorded for study.
It’s still unknown where the Higgs discovery will lead in terms of new scientific innovations. But people use more physics in their everyday lives than they realize, said visiting physicist Chetan Nayak.
Take bicycles, which the physics center provides 100 of to their visitors for getting around town. Nayak said that when bicycles were first being developed, many people refused to believe they would work. But there are “really good physics reasons” why the two-wheeled vehicle is so stable when it is moving, Nayak said.
A University of California at Santa Barbara professor who has been an annual visitor to the center since 1996, Nayak is working on developing the quantum computer, which would be vastly more powerful than current binary-based computers. Quoting Yogi Berra, a good way to understand quantum mechanics is the phrase “when you come to a fork in the road, take it,” Nayak said, because a particle in quantum mechanics takes both paths when given the option, he said.
The quantum computer would be great at cracking encryptions, and coming up with new, superior ways to encode things, he said. It would be able to do much more complex simulations than currently offered by computing. As to how it would change personal computing for the masses, it’s difficult to say now, Nayak said.
“If and when we have this technology, it is going to branch out into uses that we can’t imagine now,” he said.