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“I converged on the revision of two manuscripts and managed to finish a third one. While these activities seem unrelated to the goal of the Center which is mainly to foster collaborations, the atmosphere there is so conductive to deep thinking that one can reach much higher levels of productivity than in one's home institution.”
For physicists, the rapid changes and discoveries that revolutionized science after World War II were both stimulating and frustrating. The opportunity to ponder, to reason, to visualize and to exchange thoughts, the essentials of pure science, often fell victim to the accelerated pace of research.
Linked to the scientific challenges were the challenges of a whole new way of working. What had once been a few well-defined areas of expertise, split into many sub-fields with their own specific bodies of literature. Particle physics grew out of nuclear physics during the 50s and the 60s. In the 80s, cosmology, the science of the large, and particle physics, the science of the small, found common ground in the study of the earliest moments of the universe.
Physicists experienced a new sense of urgency and devoted every spare moment to intensive conferences and workshops in their special fields. Finding time for quiet reflection became more and more of a challenge. The demands of teaching and administration often interfered with research and scientific thought. Many who were in the mainstream of physics at their graduate universities moved on to positions at smaller institutions where it was difficult to stay informed about new and important trends. Intensely aware of the impact of technological discoveries on the public, physicists also worried that there was no appropriate forum for discussing contemporary concerns.
It was in response to these challenges that the Aspen Center for Physics was created. In 1961, two physicists, George Stranahan of the Carnegie Institute of Technology and Michael Cohen of the University of Pennsylvania, approached the Aspen Institute with a new proposal: a unique research center where theoretical physicists might gather in the summer. It would be an unstructured environment, free from distractions, where physicists could work unfettered by their normal responsibilities. As the original mission of the Aspen Institute, inspired by the great humanitarian Goethe, called for synthesizing the sciences with the humanities, the Institute's executive director Bob Craig received the suggestion enthusiastically. Supported by the Institute and eminent physicists, the project moved forward with remarkable speed. By the summer of 1962, the first building provided offices for forty-five visiting physicists. Within a few years, the Center had gained a worldwide reputation as a unique environment for the pursuit of basic scientific knowledge. In 1968, it became an independent non-profit corporation, sharing seventy pastoral acres in the residential, sunny west end of town with the Aspen Institute and the Aspen Music Festival and School.