Letter from the President, 1998-2001

My first contact with the Aspen Center for Physics dates back to 1982, when I was a postdoctoral fellow at MIT. Colleagues had coyly described a summer institute, high up in the Rocky Mountains. Sharp minds gathered there to carry out research at the cutting edge of physics, and to hike in the Rocky Mountains over the weekends. This sounded exactly like my kind of place to spend the summer.

My first visit to Aspen followed a month-long vacation crisscrossing National Parks in Colorado, Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming. As I had grown up in the “flat countries,” the Rockies offered new, and unparalleled, scenery as well as new adventure. I fell in love with Aspen, with its physics, and with its hiking. One aspect of the Center that I came to value tremendously was sitting in on seminars and discussions in fields different from my own, especially in condensed matter physics. Another was the Center’s excellent library. No surprise, then, that between 1983 and 2002, I was to participate every summer except one, and acknowledge the Center in most of my papers written during that period.

Hiking in the high country, conquering some of Colorado’s fourteeners, and taking in the stunning views from mountain tops and passes became a passion. My parents flew in from Belgium a few times, joined me on the trails, and enjoyed the town of Aspen. Colleagues at the Center gathered on Friday afternoons in front of the big topographic map in Stranahan Hall to plan the adventures for the weekend. Dick Norton, our dear departed friend, was a regular on so many of these hikes, as were his son Peter and his friend Benji. At various times, Eddie Farhi, Jean-Loup Gervais, Norisuke Sakai, Pierre Sikivie, and Dan Stein would join us. But perhaps the most exceptional day–hike was the 24 miles, 7,500 total vertical feet, four–pass circumambulation of the Maroon Bells which is called the Fravert–Basin–Loop, and which John Schwarz and I completed in 14 hours.

So, when Jody Enders and I met in Spring 1993, nothing could have seemed more natural to me than to ask her out on a five–week “date” to Aspen. She did not decline. Although Jody was not much of a hiker initially, her stamina made her accompany me on trails of various degrees of difficulty. One thing led to another and in Summer of 1995 I proposed to Jody while we were in Aspen. The subsequent year we married on top of Aspen Mountain. Ours was a small wedding, attended by our parents, judge Bob Gruetter, plus members of our own Aspen family: Marty and Beate Block, Eddie and Sophia Farhi, Dan Freedman, Jane Kelly, Dick and Wanie Norton, Deb Pease, and Judy Schramm. Once back down off the gondola, Jody and I boarded a tiny plane from Aspen to Crested Butte, and celebrated with a dinner at Soupçon. We spent a few wonderful days in Crested Butte, and then hiked back to Aspen along the East Maroon Pass trail.

Over the years in Aspen, while I was doing physics at the Center, Jody spent her time writing her books, which explains why The Medieval Theater of Cruelty (1999) and Death by Drama and Other Medieval Urban Legends (2002) bear heartfelt acknowledgments to the Aspen Center for Physics.

Now onto Presidential Matters

One does not become President of the ACP overnight. My own term as President from 1998 to 2001 was preceded by three years as Treasurer of the Center, a position to which I had been “promoted” from that of Assistant Treasurer. To this day, I am not sure why the Center’s powers, then at play, imagined me capable of putting together decent financials. I doubt they were aware of the fact that both my father and grandfather were businessmen who had juggled balance sheets for a living. Pierre Ramond was Treasurer and then President respectively during my own terms as Assistant Treasurer and Treasurer. It was great fun to work with Pierre, all the more so because the Center was then going through a watershed period of change. The land on which the Center stands, together with its surrounding “Circle of Serenity,” had been legally acquired; an intense fundraising campaign was being spearheaded by David Schramm, our dear departed friend; and a beautiful new building was underway to replace the old Hilbert Hall. Deb Pease was hired as the full–time accountant of the Center when Bryce Maple retired, and the new Administrative Vice–President, Jane Kelly, helped propel the ACP into the smoothly run professional forum for international physics talent that it is today.

Perhaps the most important task a President of the Center must complete is securing federal funding, without which the Center could not operate. High gears are required when an old NSF grant is near expiration, and a proposal to renew the five–year grant needs to be submitted. The NSF had provided adequate support for the Center since 1972. But in 2000, the funding dollars had been virtually constant since 1991. I made it my mission to redress this situation, and dedicated my seven–week stay in 2000 to hammering out a good proposal. Fortunately, several members provided invaluable help in writing up various scientific aspects of the proposal, specifically, Elihu Abrahams, Ravin Bhatt, Sudip Chakravarty, Josh Frieman, Steven Girvin, Howard Haber, Angela Olinto, Joseph Polchinski, Elizabeth Simmons, Dan Stein, Charles Stevens, and Craig Wheeler. Amongst other things, the new proposal consolidated under a single umbrella grant several small grants for the ACP’s highly successful Winter Conferences, which had been brought into existence by Marty Block in the late 1980’s.

To test the waters, I approached Boris Kayser, who was then the NSF program director in charge of the ACP, and asked him for some insights. In his inimitable way, Boris told me that he could not “advise” me. But then, as we were sitting there on the grass under the Aspen trees, Boris was eager to talk and it did not take me long to decode the oracle.

Nine months later, the ACP received confirmation that the NSF grant would be renewed, with a 32% increase in support, to a total of $330,000 per year. This leap was made possible by the fact that all seven external reviewers had ranked the proposal “Excellent,” and all three panels involved had recommended “the highest priority for funding.” Let me take the liberty of assembling a few comments made by different reviewers. “The Aspen Center for Physics provides an entirely unique facility for physicists from a variety of sub–disciplines to interact in a substantial way.” “It is easy to be enthusiastic about providing continuing support for the ACP, since this is a stellar institution that fully deserves to have its support continued.” “I believe there are few opportunities where the NSF gets better value for its money, either in terms of immediate research productivity or in terms of broader impact on the long–term health of the field.”

The Center’s federal funding situation was now secure. Meanwhile Tom Appelquist, who then served as Chairman of the Board, and I started laying the foundations for gradually building up an endowment. Our motivation was simple: The fundraising campaign of the mid 1990’s had been concluded successfully, and the newly completed Flug–Smart–Hosier building complex was a triumph. There was no immediate need to renovate Bethe Hall or Stranahan. But rental prices for participant housing were increasing at an alarmingly high rate, despite Jane Kelly‘s superb local contacts and negotiating skills. Some of the Center’s Trustees were suggesting that the ACP should build and administer its own housing. Thus, Tom and I dutifully spent time looking into those unappealing options. As I recall Murray Gell–Mann stressing at the time, we had always subsidized participant housing rentals, and would just have to subsidize at a higher rate. The ACP was to stay away from acquiring its own housing. Period. Of course, Murray was right. Actually, the recessions of 2001 and 2008 were soon to affect real estate in Aspen as well, and, eventually, the market would naturally drive rental prices lower and open up inventory. It was against this backdrop that systematic endowment funds were initiated.

My time as President was a happy one. The Center had a terrific staff, as it does now. When asked, its members were invariably eager and willing to help in the administration of the ACP. Towards the end of my term, however, I had become deeply involved in a number of very exciting and difficult research projects in superstring theory. To these projects, I dedicated all my research hours, leaving no time to participate in the ACP’s own scientific programs. As a result, once my successor, our recently departed friend Dave De Young, had taken over the presidency in 2001, Jody and I did not return to Aspen until Summer of 2011, when two simultaneous workshops captivated my full attention. I went to the yearly meetings of the Board of Members and Trustees, and was reassured to see the Center’s governance in capable young hands. But above all, I enjoyed Aspen once again, as I had first in 1983, for its physics, for the discussions outdoors, and for the incomparable beauty of its hiking trails. Happy 50th anniversary to the Aspen Center for Physics! My sincerest wish is that many future generations of young physicists will be able to draw as much joy and fulfillment from their association with the Center as I have had the privilege to over almost 30 years.

This essay was written in celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Aspen Center for Physics.