The First 35 Years of the Aspen Center for Physics

by Jeremy Bernstein

Chapter VIII L'Envoi & Acknowledgements

Physics, unlike art, is progressive. One would be hard put to explain why Picasso is “better” than the Lascaux artists who drew the cave pictures. But I would have no trouble explaining why quantum mechanics is “better” than Newtonian mechanics. It includes Newtonian mechanics as a limiting case and provides answers to questions that Newtonian mechanics cannot even ask. Physics is generational. It takes four years usually to get an undergraduate degree and maybe four or five years to get a PhD and then maybe another five or six years before this PhD has students of his or her own. So in a space of some twenty years two generations of physicists have been produced with a third on the way. This reflects itself in the Center. When I first went there I knew almost all the physicists. Now I know almost none. This is the way it should be. If there were still the same people the Center would be a museum and not a dynamic research institution. In those early years most of the participants were men. The group is now much more diverse. This is not accidental. The Center has gone out of its way to admit and encourage women und those from under–represented groups. The young people who come simply take for granted the facilities. They have little or no idea of how these were acquired. This also is as it should be. They are there to do physics, which is also as it should be. Nonetheless there is a value in recording this history. Knowing the past adds significance to the present.


I am first of all grateful to Pierre Ramond who suggested that I try to write this informal history. As he will recall I was not in the first instance very enthusiastic.The reason was that I did not see how to do it. I do not start writing projects that I have no idea how to finish. Of one thing I was certain, I must start with George Stranahan. There were other “founders” but without George there would have been nothing. It was his idea and he put up the money in the first instance. He also gave the place credibility with the “locals.” The physicists were an alien life form and George was the bridge. So I said to myself that if George was not interested in a long interview that would be the end of the matter. George agreed and we spent several hours talking into a tape recorder. On the basis of this I was able write the first couple of chapters. This gave me the feeling that I might be able to do it. The next step was to go to the local library. I needed to see if the back issues of The Aspen Times were available. They were and thanks to the staff of the library I spent weeks going over all the issues of the Times on microfilm from about 1960. This was a treasure trove. Some of the local information was filled in by people like Bill Stirling and Amy Margerum. I have also to thank Sally Hume Mencimer for her help. Then there were the people at the Center. I thank Patty Fox, Paula Johnson and Jane Kelly for their help and for the thoughtful editing. Many of my fellow physicists read portions of the draft and made comments. I give specific acknowledgements in the body of the text. To all I say thanks.

About the Author

Jeremy Bernstein was born Dec. 31, 1929 in Rochester, N.Y. Besides being an American physicist, educator, and writer widely known for the clarity of his writing for the lay reader on the major issues of modern physics, he has been an integral part of the Aspen Center for Physics. He is currently on the board of the Aspen Center for Physics as an Honorary Trustee. He was Vice President of the Center from 1982-1997 and has served on nearly all of the Center's committees.

After graduation from Harvard University, Bernstein worked at Harvard and at the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton, N.J. In 1962 he became an associate professor of physics at New York University. He became a professor of physics at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. in 1967, an affiliation he retains. He was also on the staff of The New Yorker magazine.

Bernstein continues to illuminate scientific topics for the general public. His interests range from cosmology to the origins of the computer. He has published hundreds of books, magazine articles, columns and currently (2012) has a blog on The New York Review of Books.

If you would like to know more about Jeremy, his autobiographical memoir, The Life It Brings, was published in 1986. He is also featured on where you can see a video interview.