Letter from the President, 1989-1993

My presidency was a transitional one, linking the “Founders’ era” to the “Modern era.” I was the first “young Turk” President, by which I mean one whose roots didn’t trace to the Center’s Founders and one who railed against the old boys. (Of course, they were the ones who actually got things done, and what comes around goes around – today I am one of the old boys.) My nine years of intense ACP service began in 1984/85 as Scientific Secretary, followed by Assistant Treasurer (1985 to 1988) and Treasurer (1988/89), and then Vice President (1988/89) and President (1989 to 1993). I believe my stint as Vice President was the trial period to see if a young Turk could be trusted with the reins of the power (cf., Fishbane’s essay), and some would say the jury is still out.

During this period, the Center instituted electronic admissions and bookkeeping, purchased its first computing equipment (a 386 PC and an HP Laser Jet II printer), hired an outside accountant (more below), ushered in the modern bylaws, established an endowment fund, acquired the land for our campus, began planning for the $3 million campaign that financed Smart Hall, and for better or worse, workshops became firmly established as the cornerstone activity of the summer program. But I think the most important part of the transition was handing over responsibility for the well being of the Center to younger scientists more intensely involved in their research and not connected to the founding of the Center. And I believe that this transition of power has been as successful as it was necessary.

I came to Aspen for the first time in 1979 when I was a Fermi Fellow at the University of Chicago. Don Lamb and David Schramm urged me to apply, and like many young scientists, I was put on the waitlist and had to hang in there until May when I was finally admitted. Boy, was the wait worth it.

My raison d’être for applying was in equal parts to participate in a Core Collapse/Supernova workshop (I was to be the expert on gravitational waves) and to escape Chicago during the summer. All that is but a small footnote in my life. The primary focus of my research career – particle physics and cosmology – got started unexpectedly that summer and grew and developed in subsequent summers at the Center. I met and got to know senior people in both fields (Dick Slansky, Sidney Coleman, Gary Steigman, Gino Segre, Jim Peebles, Howard Georgi, and many others) and in the informal Aspen setting they got to know me. Countless friendships that continue to enrich my personal and professional life began in Aspen.

My most important paper, with Paul Steinhardt on the origin of density perturbations from quantum fluctuations during inflation, is an Aspen success story. We wrote the first draft of this paper in Aspen as I was on my way to the famous 1982 Nuffield meeting on inflation thrown by Stephen Hawking. However, the roots are deeper. Several summers before I attended a patio blackboard seminar by Jim Bardeen on a new, gauge–invariant approach to density perturbations in cosmology; Bardeen’s seminar was completely unrelated to what I was doing at the time, but as it turned out, Bardeen’s formalism was critical to solving the problem of inflationary perturbations. (Bardeen eventually joined us as the third author of our paper on inflationary perturbations.)

During my fifth summer I joined the 23–member Board of Trustees as Scientific Secretary (in those days, new Trustees were often given this “privilege”). The next summer I became Assistant Treasurer; Treasurer Bob Williams trained me by showing me the small metal file box that contained our records as he was leaving for the summer. A few days later, we got a call from an accounting firm in Denver telling us that Steve Taylor and a young assistant would be coming out to audit our NSF grant for the US Government (a first for the ACP). They showed up in full business attire and manner, but by the end of the week they stayed, they had shed their coats and ties and were helping us justify our sometimes misguided but always extremely logical accounting practices to NSF. (A party at Sally Hume Mencimer’s Meadows home with Nobel Laureates and then–exotic Russian visitors helped to loosen them up and to convince them about just how special the ACP is.) The next summer we hired Steve Taylor – now very familiar with our books and trained at government expense – as our Center accountant and he has been with us ever since.

In the summer of 1988, Paul Fishbane, then serving a second, one–year term presidency, prepared me for the job ahead. (This had the added benefit of deepening our friendship, now based upon ACP business in addition to physics and bicycling.) Erick Weinberg took over as Treasurer, and the two of us would work closely for the next four years. We were both young Turks; our research interests were similar and we were good friends. His steady hand on the finances and his good counsel served the Center well.

The long saga of our quest to gain a permanent home on the Meadows kicked into high gear and came to a successful conclusion during my term. For several years, we had a campus planning committee, a mantra for what we wanted: (a “Circle of Serenity,” see map); a very good reputation in the community (the physicists give the public lectures, ride bicycles and don’t ask Aspen for anything); a small $50,000 “endowment” fund; a guardian angel and Aspen power player, George Stranahan; and a talented and much feared attorney, J. Nicholas McGrath, who had clerked for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Aspen Meadows Land Use Plan (1981)

Aspen Meadows Land Use Plan (1981)

The Meadows soap opera featured a remarkable cast of players: the mysterious Palestinian Mohamed Hadid who led a group of Middle–East investors in buying 88 acres of Aspen land that included the Meadows property and the current site of the St. Regis Hotel, beating out and pissing off his mentor Donald Trump; David McLaughlin, the President of the Aspen Institute at a time when its Aspen operations were in decline and its future was in question; Robert Harth, the much beloved President of the Music Associates of Aspen; and a colorful City Council led by Mayor Bill Stirling. (As Peter Kaus described in his essay, it all began when in 1979, R.O Anderson, Chairman of ARCO and of the Aspen Institute, got mad at the City of Aspen and sold the Meadows property to developer Hans Cantrup. Cantrup, whose wealth was measured in the billions but with a fluctuating sign, eventually went bankrupt triggering Hadid’s purchase and the saga that eventually led to our getting title to our Circle of Serenity.)

The Meadows drama featured plenty of intrigue and many twists and turns. During my presidency, I sat through the spectacle of numerous City Council and Zoning Board meetings. (Others did as well, including Jeremy Bernstein, Peter Kaus and sometimes George Stranahan.) Robert Harth was a wonderful and supportive ally and together we kept David McLaughlin from negotiating bad deals for the “non–profits” (collectively Music, Physics and Institute). And our barrister Nick McGrath protected us (Nick’s junior partner at the time, Mick Ireland, is now (2012) Aspen mayor).

Since the Meadows was a specially zoned parcel of land, everything hinged upon the creation of a Council–approved Master Plan that would determine how much building Hadid and his partners could do and what the non–profits and City would get in return. At the time, the City Council was adiabatically evolving from a dogmatic no–growth group to one that increasingly favored growth. The stars (and interests) aligned in 1991, and a compromise Master Plan was approved. It gave us our land for “free” (= $100,000 of legal fees plus $200,000 for various Meadows improvements and permits) and the right to build an additional building; Hadid was allowed to build four houses adjacent to the race track and a big hotel in town; Music got permission to build a new “rehearsal facility” (Harris Hall), and the bulk of the Meadows was preserved as open space. (A lasting symbol of the compromise is the odd dual access to the Institute’s Meadows facility, extended along 8th street and 7th street, put in to satisfy West End homeowners.)

With our Circle of Serenity secured, it was a time to think about campus renovation. The temporary Hilbert building was 30 years old and we needed more space (for several summers we had been using second–class space in the Institute’s Boettcher building to our east). I approached David McLaughlin about purchasing Boettcher and he surprised me with an astronomical price for a less than ideal solution. David did us an enormous favor: he closed out a bad option. Looking at the map, one can see that Boettcher is not naturally part of our campus.

In my final President’s report I proposed a different option: a replacement building for Hilbert with an estimated a cost of $1 to $2 million (off by a factor of two – not bad for a cosmologist) and a timescale of five years (a year longer than it actually took). I also urged the nomination of David Schramm as the next Chairman of the Board, knowing that he had the time, energy and skills for such an undertaking. Together David and Tom Appelquist raised the money for and oversaw the building of the Smart complex that completed our modern campus. Sadly, a year after the dedication, David died in a plane crash on his way to Aspen for the Christmas holidays.

There were other notable events during my presidency. Erick, Daniel Fisher and I went to NSF to lobby the Assistant Director for MPS David Sanchez and the division directors for physics, materials and astronomy for a 35% increase in funding (from $170,000 to $230,000). Our meeting ended with Sanchez telling his division directors to make it happen (and it did). With some pushback from my worried fellow astros, I mainstreamed the traditional NASA–supported, stand–alone astrophysics workshop. Today, instead of one guaranteed astro workshop, astro competes with summer workshop proposals in particle, condensed matter and bio physics, and we now often have three or more astro workshops.

Margaret Thatcher in Bethe Conference Room

Margaret Thatcher in Bethe Conference Room

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher spent an afternoon at our campus (her request!) during her 1990 Aspen visit when she famously told George H.W. Bush not to go wobbly on Iraq. Mrs. Thatcher endured several hours of talks (lasting almost as long as the first Iraq war), but politely stayed on for tea served by Sally with her mother’s best tea service. The Summer Program grew from 10 to 11 weeks and applications ran around 700; we typically accommodated about 400 physicists with an average stay of slightly more than three weeks, and the registration fee increased from $150 to $200. The winter conferences became established as important meetings and began attracting younger scientists (my barometer for success). Of course, the most important event of my presidency was convincing Tom Appelquist to be my successor so that I could return to doing research when I was at the Center.

Looking back over my President’s Reports, I find that my biggest worry about the future was the rising rental rates in Aspen (some things never change) and that my biggest thank you’s were always to our Administrative Vice President, Sally Hume Mencimer. During my tenure we lost our first two former Trustees – Heinz Pagels in the summer of 1988 climbing on the Maroon Bells and Baqi Beg, of a heart attack in 1990 – another, albeit very sad, sign of the transition from the Founders’ era of the Center. Ending on a happy, personal note, both my children – Rachel and Joseph – were born while I was President and each spent much of their first few months of life in Aspen.

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