Elihu Abrahams 1979-83




In late summer of 1979, I was elected ACP President. It can be appreciated that by this time, the Center was a smoothly functioning institution under the firm guidance of Sally Hume Mencimer, its Administrative Vice President. Therefore, the position of President appeared to me to be not very burdensome, (although my wife was skeptical) and I accepted to succeed Paul Fishbane in that office.

As it happened, I was just in time for the beginning of the protracted, complicated and often meaningless negotiations among various parties in Aspen concerning the future development (or not) of the land originally belonging to the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies. While these doings occupied a good fraction of my time during the summers of my presidency, only in the eventual outcome a decade later did they have any real impact on life at the Center.

The informal entity the “Academic Campus” includes the Physics Center, the Music Tent, Harris Hall, Paepcke Auditorium, the Meadows Tennis Courts, and the “race track.” The latter is the (as yet) undeveloped land just to the east of ACP. The Academic Campus land as well as the Aspen Meadows Resort was owned by the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies. Since its founding, the Aspen Center for Physics had been renting the land under its own buildings from the Aspen Institute for $1 per year. In 1977, in order to enable development and/or a financially advantageous transfer of holdings, the land and buildings of the Aspen Institute were transferred to a new entity, the Aspen Meadows Corporation. When the development plans of the latter were rejected by the Aspen City Council in 1979, the Aspen Meadows Corporation promptly sold itself, thus the land and buildings of the Aspen Institute, to an individual, Hans Cantrup. Then began a very long series of bizarre negotiations and property transfers that finally, in 1992, resulted in transfer of the 4.25 acres on which the Center sits, to the Aspen Center for Physics.

The land under the music facilities was similarly transferred to the Music Associates of Aspen (now the Aspen Music Festival and School). This wonderful development came at the price of allowing the construction of four private homes at the south end of the race track.

What was the role of the Physics Center in the above history? Actually, not much. We were favored by being relatively invisible, except for our substantial summer rental activity for participant housing. In 1981 the Aspen City Council appointed a body to advise on the disposition of the property of the Aspen Institute. This was an advisory board of interested and affected parties, which included the Aspen Center for Physics, only after Council was reminded of our existence. This body included representatives of the Music Associates, the Aspen Institute, the Aspen Design Conference, the Physics Center, various lawyers, city functionaries, and Hans Cantrup (who provided lunch fixings at every meeting). In its early meetings, we were able to define our land boundaries through the notion of our “Circle of Serenity,” which approximated the area eventually transferred to us. This nomenclature took hold and helped to avoid possible future infringement.

In the years following the above events and my tenure as president, Peter Kaus and George Stranahan were instrumental in protecting the interests of the Physics Center during the decade of ridiculously complex to's and fro's between city agencies and the succession of owners of the Institute's property.

There has been much discussion over the years on the issue of workshop participants vs individual researchers. To briefly recapitulate: The early summers at ACP were devoted to the participation of individual researchers, who often found other attendees with whom they collaborated in pairs or small groups. Workshops were not a prominent part of the program. As ACP activities began in fields other than theoretical particle physics, it became apparent that outstanding physicists were not attracted to the Center absent a topical workshop. In fact, the astrophysics component of ACP activities was originally only a three–week workshop in June. In 1980 we tried restricting the number of formal programs. No particle physics workshops in 1980 and 1982. No condensed matter workshop in 1981. A review of the participants in those fields in the no–workshop summers confirmed the unsurprising conclusion that “it appears necessary to announce the existence of topical workshops in order to maintain high quality participation…especially in view of the increasing demand from programs elsewhere on the time of the potential scientific leadership of the Center.” The quotes are from my 1982 and 1982 president's reports. Therefore, restricting workshop activity became a losing proposition. Even a rule that there are never more than two workshops running at the same time has often been violated.

As a result of the increase in the number of workshops in all fields, especially astrophysics, the average length of stay began to decrease from almost four weeks (1978) to less than three weeks (2011). This is viewed with dismay by many of the older generation of Center participants, who favor unstructured activity for three to four weeks or more over the sometimes hectic atmosphere and shorter stays associated with workshops. However, the conflict, if there was one, between workshops and individual research has in my view been resolved in favor of workshops.

Government agency funding for the Physics Center in the early eighties came from NSF ($100,000, now $440,000) and NASA ($16,000, now $0). In addition, the Center was successful in interesting a group of “Laboratory and Corporate Associates” that included, from time to time, Bell Laboratories, IBM, Los Alamos National Laboratory, North Holland Publishing, Xerox, Arco, Dupont, and Exxon. Contributions from these were about $2000 each. The NSF contribution has increased over the years, while the NASA grant has disappeared. As might be guessed, the Laboratory and Corporate Associates evaporated before the end of the decade, as corporations began to lose interest in basic research.

The summer programs at the Physics Center are planned only one year in advance; therefore the subjects are extremely topical. This and the very high quality of participants and research outcomes are responsible for the ever–increasing demand on the Center's facilities. The numbers are striking: the summer program in 1980 ran for thirteen weeks, with 230 participants, which was typical in that era. In 2012 the program will be sixteen weeks long, with about 540 participants anticipated, which is typical in the present era. Other contributing factors are the proliferation of workshops, especially in astrophysics and the introduction of biophysics into the Center's program. In spite of such dramatic increases, the Center's administration, led first by Sally Hume Mencimer and then by Jane Kelly, has managed to maintain the informal and easy atmosphere that creates the stimulating environment in the service of science that has characterized the Aspen Center for Physics from its beginning.