L.M. “Mike” Simmons 1985-1988




Early days

In the 50s and 60s an important summer program in physics was the famous Boulder Summer Theoretical Physics Institute. Every graduate student studied the published lectures. As a postdoc I applied to Boulder for 1966. I was admitted, and they offered financial support, something fairly important to a married postdoc with kids. I’d also heard a bit about the Aspen Center for Physics from my Ph.D. mentor, Pete Carruthers, and had applied to ACP. The acceptances came at more or less the same time but ACP had essentially no money and offered no support … gulp.

I accepted the invitation to participate in the ACP program and this changed my life. Naturally, as a first-year postdoc, I was only admitted for the early program beginning around the first of June, definitely off-season in Aspen. In those days there were no organized workshops, only the occasional seminar on the patio. Nevertheless, the informal atmosphere devoted to talking and thinking about physics with colleagues from many institutions, no distractions, and the easy contact with senior physicists was a heady experience. I was hooked and came back as often as I could. Here began or were nurtured life-long friendships and collaborations.

The ACP had little money and the campus consisted only of Stranahan Hall, where things were run by George Stranahan, the President, Mike Cohen, the Treasurer, and Sally Hume Mencimer, who did everything else. The first question was, “Did you come over the Pass?” Independence Pass wasn’t paved until 1967 or so and that entrance to Aspen was much more formidable in 1966 than it later became. (For that matter, most of the West-End streets weren’t paved and there were no traffic lights.) Even after the Pass was paved one always called Sally to see if the Pass was cleared of snow and open. Cohen, an expert climber, took one look at my hiking boots and opined that I might be useful on one of his climbs, not realizing that I was severely acrophobic. Years of hiking and climbing with experts like Randy Durand, Peter Kaus, Mike Wortis, and many others and, later, the patient tutelage of Cohen and Hans Frauenfelder on sheer cliff faces got the fears under control. With the fly-fishing instruction of Pete Carruthers, I also got control of many trout in the Roaring Fork and the lovely mountain streams so accessible from Aspen. Over many years of physics picnics, weekend kids hikes, and other activities, Margaret and our children also fell in love with Aspen and the mountains. It was obvious we should retire here.

Cohen specialized, among other climbs, in severely overhanging situations which required tremendous arm and hand strength. Sally often had a bathroom scale in her office and Mike would sometimes take the scale to each of the female support staff, ask them to squeeze it with all their might, and then add their scores. He easily beat the sum.

In the summer of 1973 I had an informal interview in Aspen with Pete Carruthers, which led to me joining him in the management of the Theoretical Division at Los Alamos. One of my duties involved the large and complex division budget, a task for which I was unprepared. Moving to Los Alamos was another life-changing event that led to my ultimate involvement with the management of the Santa Fe Institute, but that’s another story.

Assistant Treasurer and Treasurer

Unaware of my stumbles with Los Alamos finances, the Trustees apparently decided that my financial expertise made me a good candidate to become Assistant Treasurer in 1976. (Along with many others, I was then, and remain, delighted to do anything to help the ACP.) Heinz Pagels had taken over the job of Treasurer from Mike Cohen and he literally handed me the books (everything was done by hand on paper; there were no electronic spreadsheets in those days) and retreated to a general oversight capacity. The situation was incomprehensible, in part because the system was single-entry with the conventional roles of credits and debits reversed. In desperation, I sat down that fall with the deputy leader of the Los Alamos Accounting Department and a list of questions. She was very helpful, but one question, “What do your auditors say?” was scary. To my horror it dawned on me that the ACP should have had regular audits by a CPA firm, but hadn’t. Who knew? How could our unconventional system be audited? What if the NSF sent in an auditor? What if it happened on my watch? Yikes!

There ensued a frantic effort to revamp the ACP accounting system, in preparation for the inevitable day. The effort continued when I graduated from Assistant Treasurer to Treasurer in 1979 and successor Treasurers, John Schwarz, Bob Williams, and Mike Turner steadily improved things and began the practice of regular audits by Reese Henry & Co.

The NSF-mandated outside auditors finally arrived in August, 1987 but Treasurer Bob Williams, Assistant Treasurer Mike Turner, and Bookkeeper Bryce Maple were ready. So were tee shirts. We easily spotted the CPAs at the Aspen Airport in their three-piece suits, but within a day they were wearing ACP shirts and sitting under the aspen trees as they began to understand our unique institution. We passed the audit (and hired them as our regular accounting firm).

Bethe Hall

In 1975 the Center began serious work on a library-seminar building. In our current era, with journals available online, it’s not easy to appreciate how important the library was back then. The library was widely regarded as our most critical resource. Fund-raising for the library was a top priority and it was one of our largest expenses. Randy Durand and David Pines got things started with Fleischman and Kresge Foundation grants and, with Pagels as Building Fund chair, the Center began to raise additional funds for a new building. Local architect Jack Walls was hired for design. The Aspen Institute allowed ACP to build, but imposed architectural constraints and retained title.

In 1977, as construction got underway, Paul Fishbane named me the Trustee contact for the project. This was not because I knew any more about construction than I knew about accounting; I was simply the nearest to the project. Thus began a pleasant series of winter and spring visits to Aspen to consult with Walls, and watch him deal with the builder. On one occasion, after the concrete block west wall of the building was complete, Walls noticed that it was incorrectly located by a couple of feet. I was glad that he was the one who calmly told the builder to take it down and rebuild it.

I approved payments to the contractor and worried about whether we had the money to finish the building. We didn’t. The foundation grants weren’t enough and, although Pagels saw to it that many physicists contributed, we were short of the $198,000 final cost. The Trustees decided to move ahead anyway. Stranahan arranged a loan with Bank of Aspen on condition that each of the Trustees cosign. One-nth of the $60,000 loan limit was serious money to some of us in those days, but we all signed. This was a temporary building loan with interest rates that varied from 11% to 16%. (The economy was different then! ) We were able to convert it to a longer–term loan for $38,000 in 1980 but it took a while to pay this off.

Walls subscribed to the theory that colors influence behavior; cooler colors were conducive to contemplation and warmer colors promoted interaction. I have no idea whether this is true, but we bought into it and painted the panels above the office desks blue and the front wall of the seminar room orange (as if physicists needed any inducement to argue). Money was sufficiently tight that landscaping was minimal even though the construction had done its share of damage. Nevertheless, while doing a bit of planting and restoring the irrigation ditches we thought a small pond in front of Bethe Hall would be a good addition; generations of physics kids have agreed as they happily splashed and floated boats.

The building was finished enough for partial occupancy in May, 1978 but bookshelf and furniture acquisition was incomplete. In July, 1978 the Trustees voted to name the building for Nobel Laureate Hans Bethe, who had participated frequently at the Center, served on the Board, and donated generously.

Presidential Years 1985-88

When I became President in the summer of 1985, succeeding Peter Kaus, the Center was in very good condition. Although finances were tight we had a continuing grant from NSF and one from NASA plus small annual contributions from corporate and laboratory associates. The Trustee and Advisory Boards were ready to help with renewal grants and general guidance. Vice President Jeremy Bernstein quietly took care of complaints about housing subsidies and other sensitive matters and the Center’s day-to-day management was in the capable hands of Sally Hume Mencimer and the small staff she had hired. Phil Anderson was a helpful and supportive Chair (later succeeded by the equally supportive Bob Wilson). Then, as now, the President could count on lots of assistance from people with deep affection for the Center. For example, Sidney Coleman took major responsibility for writing much of the NSF renewal proposal, and many others contributed; it was successful at a 7% increase. There was a decrease in 1988 and we began the practice of encouraging visits by ACP scientists to NSF to help explain the ACP programs; Paul Fishbane, Richard Prange and, especially, Pete Carruthers worked hard to turn the decrease into an increase. (The 1987 grant was only $170,000, small by today’s standards.) In 1987 we began the practice of soliciting workshop proposals from all 1986 participants and the solicitation was further broadened in subsequent years.

Apart from grant renewals the challenges were to get the new Winter Conferences on a stable footing, plan a celebration of our 25th anniversary, get title to our campus, and restore our formerly productive exchanges with scientists from the Soviet Union.

Winter Conferences

In 1983 Martin Block proposed to Peter Kaus a series of winter conferences modeled roughly on the successful Moriond conferences in the Alps. Kaus discussed this with the Trustees and appointed several of us to an Organizing Committee. Block took the lead in obtaining funding from DOE and the Aspen Foundation. The Organizing Committee held a few meetings, formed a Scientific Advisory Committee, and invitations were issued. Marty Block, as Chair, did most of the organizing from Northwestern, and in January, 1985 we held two Aspen Winter Physics Conferences on particle physics, which were widely regarded as scientific successes. Two public lectures, supported by the Aspen Foundation were well attended. There were immediate calls for a continuation of the conferences in 1986 and the condensed matter community asked that a third conference be added. Block’s idea included published proceedings and in 1984 we had approached several publishers, ultimately settling on the New York Academy of Sciences, then led by Pagels. Ultimately, the proceedings were published.

From the outset, however, there had been skepticism on the part of some Trustees and others about the appropriateness of this new direction for ACP. Was this just a skiing boondoggle? Would it interfere with the main summer program? Could it continue with high quality? Anderson noted that it had been “a considerable source of contention within ACP.” It was clear that this new venture could die if not handled carefully. Some operational details had to be changed, but the scientific quality of the 1985 program helped. In 1986 we made a number of changes so that the Winter Conferences would operate more like the summer programs and be managed from Aspen rather than Northwestern. The Chair and the Organizing Committees would rotate, each of the weekly conferences would have a Chair, publication of the proceedings was a burden we could do without, there would be an open application procedure, conference proposals would be sought from the community, there would be more active Trustee involvement, and so on. For the 1986 conferences we received NSF and DOE support. After a couple of years Block became Honorary Chair and each of the weekly conferences had its own chair and committee. For example, in 1988 the program chairs were Elihu Abrahams, Sydney Meshkov, and Gary Steigman. As the program developed in 1986 and later, interest from the scientific community grew. Program proposals came in, the program Chairs produced improved proposals to funding agencies, and the Winter Conferences prospered.

It was unlikely that the Aspen Foundation would continue after 1986 to support the public lectures and the Center’s long-time friend, benefactor, and Trustee, Nick De Wolf, undertook to investigate the matter. The result was long-term support from Maggie and Nick De Wolf, for whom the winter lectures are now named.

25th Anniversary

During the summer of 1985 Phil Anderson pointed out that 1986 would be the 25th summer of operation of the Center and that a celebration was in order. Clearly we’d have to honor our Founders; they were appointed Honorary Chairs of the celebration. The past presidents of the Center led the planning for the celebration. Peter Kaus suggested that a series of public lectures would be an appropriate feature and the Trustees agreed.

In the early days of the Center physicists had given occasional public lectures or made not always successful presentations at the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, but it had been a while. During the 1985 Aspen Winter Physics Conferences two public lectures, partly funded by a small grant from the Aspen Foundation, had attracted an appreciative audience. We proceeded on the assumption that if some of our distinguished friends would speak, the local community would come. We submitted a larger grant request to the Aspen Foundation for support of three lectures during the 1986 Winter Conferences and for a longer series of lectures during our summer celebration. The Center also needed a new logo for the posters; I found a local artist, Tammy Lane, who produced a nice logo that was used for many years.

After many letters and phone calls to prominent friends of the Center, we celebrated the 25th summer of operation with a series of nine lectures, “our gift to the community that hosted us over all these years.” We chose a broad title for the series to allow our invited speakers a wide range of topics.

The 1986 Aspen Center for Physics Public Lectures on “Art, Science, and Society” were given by:

  • Jeremy Bernstein (Stevens Institute) “3 Degrees Above Zero”
  • Murray Gell–Mann (Nobel Laureate, Caltech) “Is Everything in the Universe Composed of Superstrings?”
  • Robert W. Wilson (Cornell, former Director of FermiLab) “Art and Physics”
  • Philip W. Anderson (Nobel Laureate, Princeton) “Physicists Against Star Wars: David vs. Goliath”
  • Robert O. Anderson (Chair of Aspen Institute and of ARCO) “The World in Which We Live”
  • George I. Bell (Los Alamos Theoretical Division Leader) “Sequencing the Human Genome”
  • Robert Craig (President, Keystone Center and ACP co-founder) “Recollections of a Naive Adventurer”
  • William R. Frazer (Senior Vice President, University of California System) “Scientist as Educator”
  • Marvin Goldberger (President, Caltech) “Science Advising, from Hiroshima to Star Wars”

  • Regular weekly colloquia were added as a summer–long feature. In further recognition of our anniversary the Stranahan Hall septic tank failed. Aspen Mayor Bill Stirling declared August 6, 1986 as Aspen Center for Physics Day.

    The centerpiece of the celebration, late in the summer of 1986, was a ceremony on the campus to honor our founders, from left, George Stranahan, Mike Cohen, and Bob Craig, with a few speeches, some remembrances, and the dedication of a brass plaque for the patio wall.

    The lectures were a success, filling the Paepcke Auditorium almost every evening, and generating thanks and requests from the community for a continuation. In retrospect it became clear that the ACP was not well known in the community and that these lectures were a useful means of building goodwill, something that came in handy as the battles over our campus heated up and public support was needed. With support from the Trustees, the public lectures continued under the guidance of Syd Meshkov with four in 1987, five in 1988, and seven in 1989.

    On July 23, 1988, tragedy struck when Heinz Pagels, our friend, colleague, and a former Officer and Trustee, fell to his death on Pyramid Peak. Heinz had made a name for himself not only in research but also, with several books, as a talented popularizer of science. The universal sentiment was that the lectures be renamed the “Heinz R. Pagels Memorial Public Lectures.” The first under this title was given on July 27, 1988 by Peter Carruthers and the series continues to this day.

    The Russians are coming

    The US and USSR had long supported scientific exchange programs and the ACP had hosted visits by Soviet scientists in the mid-70s. These had been a success and the source of some local folklore about the antics of our visitors. In 1980 the Trustees discussed a revival of the exchanges but nothing came of it. An attempt in 1985 had fallen through, but a new effort seemed worthwhile. The route was through the Joint Coordinating Committee on Fundamental Properties of Matter, which met alternately in the US and the USSR. It was necessary not only for any visit to be endorsed by this committee but also to find full financial support for the Soviets. Additionally, the ACP Trustees were firm in demanding that scientific quality was the first priority and that proposed visitors apply in the usual way to ACP, individually and not as part of a delegation. None of this was easy to arrange; ACP admission procedures were difficult for the Soviets.

    Beginning in the fall of 1985 I sent a series of letters to the US National Academy of Sciences, to US funding agencies, to individual Soviet scientists, and to members of the US component of the JCC–FPM, followed by telexes to the leaders of the Soviet side.

    The Soviets were late in submitting names for the 1986 program but the ACP admissions committee found that the quality of the Soviet scientists was quite high, the DOE provided support, and ultimately seven Soviet scientists participated in 1986. The process started all over in the winter of 1986–87 and eight Soviet scientists participated in the August, 1987 superstrings workshop. During the 1987 visit, planning began to bring US physicists to an Aspen–style workshop at Yerevan and this workshop was held in the summer of 1988. Participation at ACP by Soviet scientists continued in 1988, 1989, and into the 90s.

    During the Soviet era many thought that in any group there would be at least one “minder,” and there was always speculation that some member of the group must be a KGB agent charged with keeping them on the straight and narrow. This seems unlikely because all the scientific credentials, publications, and reputations of the visitors had been reviewed by our admissions committee. More likely, one or more of the visitors was a member of the Communist Party, possibly with some oversight duties. It was always fun to speculate and it was clear that our visitors were, for the most part, being careful to avoid compromising situations and to go about in groups of two or more. In those days, Sally usually found slightly nicer accommodations for the president and each year she put us in the Kettlekamp house, a small Victorian on Bleeker that had a certain charm but was certainly not palatial. Each year we gave one or two informal parties for the Trustees and Advisory Board; the Soviet visitors were included on one occasion. The front room of Kettlecamp, which we didn’t use much, contained a poor example of a waterbed, the cheap kind with inadequate baffles so that any movement caused lots of oscillations. Waterbeds always enjoyed a certain salacious notoriety and during the party one of the Soviets lay down to check out the bed; he was suddenly joined on the bed by the wife of a US physicist. The bed heaved suggestively with uncontrolled waves and the Soviet physicist (both names are unfortunately long forgotten) bounded frantically from this potentially embarrassing situation to hilarious laughter.

    Of course, the Berlin Wall came down in November, 1989 and everything changed with the dissolution of the USSR at the end of 1991. By the mid–90s, Russian physicists were applying as individuals and many have participated.

    Campus

    Like nearly every other President, I had dreams of finally presiding over the acquisition of title to the ACP campus. The situation was urgent, in rapid flux, and far too complicated to recount in detail here. The ACP archives contain files pertaining to our campus that are (this is no exaggeration) several feet thick. The Aspen Institute, of course, not only owned the land that we thought of as “our” campus, but also claimed title to the ACP buildings, required us to insure them, exercised control over the appearance, and, from time to time, required us to notify them annually of our plans to use the buildings. The Institute leadership thought it had granted to ACP a 99-year lease (perhaps never signed) and had offered in a letter to ACP, use of the campus “in perpetuity,” a term of no legal validity. The ACP was a small player in a big controversy between the City of Aspen, the Institute, and a series of buyers of the Institute property. As early as 1979, a citizens' committee, led by then Chamber president and ACP friend Kris Marsh, was formed to mediate between the City and the Institute and to try to preserve some breathing room around the ACP. In 1980 the AIHS sold the entire Meadows property (including the ACP campus) to Hans Cantrup, who by 1983 was bankrupt and sold the property to John Roberts. By 1987 the property was owned by Mohammed Hadid, but Donald Trump was lurking somewhere in the background and a group called Senior/Hallam Joint Venture filed a lawsuit laying claim to much of the land on which Smart Hall now sits. The archives contain several inches of depositions by several of us in this lawsuit. One development plan (there were others) from the time underlines the threat and the great deal of money involved: it shows dozens of houses covering the “horse track” to the west, some on the meadow to the north of ACP, and many to the south including part of the site of the current Smart Hall. We could be surrounded and our “circle of serenity” would disappear.

    In 1985 Kaus had the wisdom to appoint several of us to a Campus Planning Committee, led by Stranahan, to manage negotiations and to speak with one voice for the Center. This committee and, especially, Stranahan worked for years with the Institute, the City, and citizens groups in more meetings than are worth remembering here, but the hope for a quick solution faded.

    Characteristic of the seemingly endless futility was a meeting on the campus in August, 1985 with Bob Anderson, Murph Goldberger (not only a friend of ACP but also a AIHS Trustee), and Jack Conway, (another Institute Trustee). Kaus and I represented the ACP and Stranahan joined a follow–up meeting the next day. Anderson was most concerned with a subdivision permit for the AIHS and retrieving title to the academic campus, but this would leave much adjacent land subject to development. He listened, apparently sympathetically, to our concerns; we were most worried about plans to build housing on the old horse track. He maintained that he “had always intended to convey title to about 2.5 acres and buildings to ACP” but couldn’t do so without title to the academic parcel. We explained the threat to our “circle of serenity” posed by potential development to the west. After viewing that land from the edge of our campus he offered the helpful assessment, “You’ve got a problem.”

    That fall we got word that the AIHS had received approval to reacquire the academic campus. This was just what we’d been told they needed and I wrote to Anderson suggesting that the occasion of his talk at our 25th anniversary would be an ideal time to convey title to ACP. This didn’t work; he gave the talk but no title. Undeterred, I had our lawyer Nick McGrath prepare several alternatives that would meet our needs including a quit-claim deed, a warranty deed, and a 99-year lease. All this went to the Institute with a stack of relevant background documents. The AIHS reply was quick and negative. The lawsuit, the threat to our serenity, and the uncertainty continued.

    At some stage I reviewed my notes of the failed outdoor meeting with the AIHS in the summer of 1985. There was a stain on one of the pages which I recognized and labeled “symbolic blob of bird shit that fell during the meeting.”

    The most positive outcome of all this for me was that I had the pleasure of spending many hours in consultation with our talented lawyer, Nick McGrath, in whose office hung a picture of him with Supreme Court Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall, for whom he had clerked. Nick’s helpfulness to the ACP continued for years.

    Ultimately, the Center’s persistence paid off and, under the leadership of Michael Turner, the Center succeeded in gaining title to the campus.

    Worries

    At the conclusion of my term, my main worry for the future of the Center was the threat of rising housing costs. As condos were sold at higher and higher prices and often spiffed up at even higher cost, it seemed evident that rental prices would rise and that some expensive properties would be removed from the market altogether. Affordable housing, especially for our critically important younger participants, is essential. Miraculously, Mencimer and her successor Jane Kelly have staved off this threat for decades.

    As the ACP matured it became clear that our organizational structure needed work. The role of the Advisory Board was unclear at best; many officers, committee members, and chairs were not Trustees. Frequent special resolutions and Bylaw changes were passed at our meetings. Late in my term, Nick McGrath, our lawyer, pointed out that we were sometimes engaged in “unusual, ill–conceived, and possibly illegal practices” and there was no quick fix. A major overhaul was needed and at Nick’s urging I suggested that the Trustees ask the next President to address this. Fishbane did so by appointing a new committee, chaired by Randy Durand, to work with Nick on new and more conventional Bylaws. The Advisory Board disappeared, replaced by the General Members, and many more changes were made. Sadly for Durand he became our expert on these arcana, consulted at nearly every meeting for more than 20 years.

    Conclusion

    The Aspen Center for Physics is a remarkable and possibly unique institution. In some ways it now bears little resemblance to its early self: a small, informal, barely funded organization occupied by a few dozen physicists who stayed for weeks and pursued individual and collaborative research interrupted only occasionally by seminars. Hundreds now come here each summer and visits are short, but still intellectually intense. Workshops now provide an essential structure to the program, which remains in great demand. ACP grew and changed as the needs of the physics community changed. It remains a vibrant place, full of exciting, current science and attracting the best. Miraculously, the ACP has struck a delicate and productive balance between the need to preserve its essential institutional memory and the need for fresh ideas and leadership. This requires a mix of vigorous younger members and experienced leadership, the one maturing into the other. It works because so many participants have come to love and respect the Center and are willing to volunteer their work to preserve it and improve it.