So Why Come To Aspen?

By cjohnson | August 7, 2005 7:26 pm

lighting Ok, so some of the readers of my earlier posts have formed a rather negative view of Aspen. Some of this is my fault. I actually love Aspen. I don’t come here for the charming people (and there are several here) – I just ignore the people I don’t like (and they me); nor do I come to look at stuff like the chandelier to the right, characteristic of a lot of the decor here! (Some people do come for this sort of thing; this is precisely what you find in a lot of those aforementioned tat-shops. Good for them: live and let live.)

I come for the wonderful physics that gets done here at the Aspen Center for Physics (some of which I’ve already reported on in a few recent posts) and the fact that I’m welcome to come and contribute. I come here for the music that I’ve already told you about. I also come here for things that a lot of other people come here for: – Let me just shut up and show you what I saw on the hike today:


And, oh! The flowers and trees on the hike were wonderful (the latter give the town its name, by the way):


So I hope this helps you to understand why the area is a pretty good place to visit, and why it is a great place to come and think hard about physics problems with a clear head. Some amazing physics has been done here and long may that continue. -cvj

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Miscellany, Personal, Travel
  • CapitalistImperialistPig

    And, so I hear, they have a little skiing in the Winter.

  • Clifford

    All true, I’m told. Thanks. -cvj

  • Pyracantha

    Lifestyles of the rich and famous…or the brilliant and scientific? Maybe you ought to remind us readers that your trips to Aspen, Geneva, Paris, Prague, and other romantic places only happen after you have made yourself a successful physics/academic career, paid for with twenty years of grueling study and life-consuming, exhausting work, as well as hyperintense competition and tenure anxiety.
    Most folks who study physics don’t get to go to exciting, romantic, or adventurous places, at least for the sake of physics. (Do you have to pay for these trips yourself?) You might also mention that not everyone who studies physics is young, healthy, and energetic enough to climb mountains or ride futuristic bikes.
    just a few thoughts from the graphics studio.

  • Abbas Raza

    Lovely pictures. I perceive that maybe Aspen isn’t so bad, after all.

  • JoAnne

    Pyracantha, you raise a good point. In fact, I am planning to post soon on the why’s, where’s and how’s that physicists travel so much. As you said, it doesn’t happen until a physicist reaches a certain stage in their career after a lifetime of hard work. Limited traveling starts at the graduate student level. I always make sure that my students attend a summer school in their 3rd or 4th year, and attend a couple of meetings and give short talks, so senior scientists get to know them. As a post-doc, one can count on being able to attend 1-2 conferences per year. These are financed by one’s home institution. More travel opportunities open up for faculty members. The question of who pays depends on what the trip is for. Sometimes, the trip is paid by one’s own grant, while at other times it is the conference/summerschool/committee/panel/colloquium sponsor that covers the expenses. The latter doesn’t occur until one is fairly senior. Having said that, there are plenty of times where I have paid for the travel personally, if I thought it was important for my career, or something I really wanted to do. And finally, I find that the total expense of a trip is rarely fully covered, but part of that is because I don’t consider McDonald’s a restaurant.

    I also want to add that sometimes we go to fantastic places, but never see them. I had one trip to Paris where all I saw was the inside of the conference auditorium and committee meeting rooms. (Yes, even at night!) I could have been in Cleveland!

  • Clifford

    Pyracantha, thanks for the thoughtful comments!

    Two points of information that might interest you.

    (1) Rather a lot of the people that come up to the Aspen Physics Center are in their 50s and 60s. They hike too. And even though some of them are probably better hikers than I, I should also mention that several of the very pleasant hikes are nothing more than long rugged walks that people of many shapes, sizes and levels of mobility can do.

    (2) The Brompton is not a futuristic bike. It was realized a very long time ago that the large wheels on “regular” bikes are -for most applications- rather unneccessary, and so you can have much smaller and portable bikes. I just don’t know why it has not been more widely recognised. And folding bikes are probably almost as old as regular bikes. This particular design (resulting in a fast and compact fold) is decades old. The bike is only futuristic in the USA, which always seems to be rather far behind the rest of the world when it comes to innovation in non-automotive areas of transport for the masses. If you ever go to central London, you’ll find that the future has already happened some time ago: More people are cycling to work in coombination with buses and subways and as a result the Brompton is now becoming (or has become) the single most used bike for commuting there. And the last time I was there, the first Brompton I saw was ridden by an elderly lady who was at least 65 years old! The bike is much easier to ride for anyone (including the elderly) than those big-wheeled things.



  • Charlie Wagner

    Reminds me of that quote from Feynman:

    “When I was at Princeton in the 1940s I could see what happened to those great minds at the Institute for Advanced Study, who had been specially selected for their tremendous brains and were now given this opportunity to sit in this lovely house by the woods there, with no classes to teach, with no obligations whatsoever. These poor bastards could now sit and think clearly all by themselves, OK? So they don’t get any ideas for a while: They have every opportunity to do something, and they are not getting any ideas. I believe that in a situation like this a kind of guilt or depression worms inside of you, and you begin to worry about not getting any ideas. And nothing happens. Still no ideas come.

    Nothing happens because there’s not enough real activity and challenge: You’re not in contact with the experimental guys. You don’t have to think how to answer questions from the students. Nothing! “

  • MobyDikc

    And Feynman’s quote also reminds me of:

    “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

    (And of course, the cuckoo clock isn’t even Swiss.)

  • citrine

    …And let’s not forget Swiss chocolate, Swiss cheese and the Swiss Army knife! (Oh, and of course “Heidi”, one of the most endearing stories of all time. Sniff, sniff.)

    Also remember that famous patent office in Bern that gave a certain young man a job and enough time to think about Physics?

    OK, back to business.

    How has teleconferencing affected Physicists? Of course, nothing beats face-to-face and eyes-to-chalkboard encounters but I’m guessing that some of the travel could be replaced by having participants interact via teleconferencing. (Wouldn’t this be a good method to get input from those with serious health issues that affect their mobility?)

  • Clifford

    citrine – While (as you already pointed out) face-to-face and eye-to-board cannot be replaced, there is a fair amount of teleconferencing activity that takes place, but it is still very much an unusual situation when it does happen. I will speak only of my experiences now…others in other fields will have different stories: First, of course, there are audio teleconferences via phone lines (which usually are concerned with broad issues and not details). Then there are computer-based methods for chatting with one or more collaborators. This is still getting going, largely because there are still too many cross-platform issues, but it is getting better. I use instant messaging a lot, and it is extremely useful for fast turnover in techical conversations if used in combination with email. For example, while in Durham, I was able to carry on quite a detailed research conversation with Jeff, a student of mine at USC, while IM-ing over ichat (me on mac, he on windows) and occasionally emailing picures and other media (some of which you can drag and drop into the IM easily, by the way) back and forth. There are one or two colleagues around the world who’s IM userid I have and occasionally I pop up a screen when I can see they’re logged in and ask them a question….maybe that will turn into more substantive collaboration one day.

    You can also videoconference more easily from computer to computer really easily these days. ichat with the isight camera is something I use (you plug it in and you’re ready to go), and hope to use more, and there is some cross-platform capability there too. While in LA, I’ve video-chatted about research-related issues with Per Berglund , all the way over in Durham NH, using this method, for example. (And there seems to be a ton more people out there using macs in our field these days, so I expect I’ll have more colleagues to chat to if a physics reason presents itself.)

    There are also several places that post downloadable or streaming video of seminars and discussions. This is also very useful as a means of substituting for travel in a limited way. I even know of people who sit together in an office and watch a recording of a seminar together as though it was their invited speaker.

    At a more dramatic level there are live distributed seminars with participants at remote nodes who can interact and even present seminars of their own to all the other nodes. I’ve already mentioned this recently in another post, in the discussion thread as comment number 33. You might want to read the whole post, which was about a distributed method of having research conversations on a blog format, which does relate to your question. (Comments on that related but different issue should be done on the comment stream there, not here). You should also see Jaques Distler’s website for discussions of advances in having technical discussions electronically (getting equations done on browsers efficiently, etc)

    An extract of what I said there of relevance to your question is below:

    For another format for web-distributing seminars, you should be aware of the access grid, by the way. That’s at least one example…basically video conferencing a seminar with various nodes being able to participate and contribute seminars to the system (they all control the same projectors)…which I’ve seen work well at a black hole meeting in Ohio , for example. Steve Pinsky ran the infrastructure nicely and Samir Mathur and co-organisers invited a great group of people to participate in the physics. I wish we could have more of those regularly.

    All in all, there are several ways being employed for remote conversations and discussion. They will take their place alongside the usual modes (i.e. showing up and having eye-to-eye talk) and these thigns will complement each other. It will not be all one or the other.



  • citrine

    Thanks for your very detailed reply!

  • Clifford

    Well, you know, I do try to please as many of my readers as I can. 😉 -cvj

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