The Future of Physics

On Saturday we had another series of celebration events for the 50th Anniversary of the Aspen Center for Physics. It began at 2:00pm with a discussion in Paepke auditorium entitled “The Future of Physics”, and it was introduced by Michael Turner, and moderated by Lisa Randall, with three Nobel Prize winners forming the panel: David Gross, Bob Laughlin, and Adam Riess. (I decided to do a short sketch during some of it, and then quickly splashed on some colour later in the evening*. The result is above. The sketches are meant to give a sense of the stage and people on it, not be representative likenesses, so I refer you to pictures of them for actual portraits…)

There was an excellent turnout, and audience members were treated to a good and wide-ranging discussion. It was a difficult subject to grapple with, and Lisa started out in a good place, by getting each panelist to take turns to describe their way into physics, then around again to talk about the areas they got their Nobel Prizes in. She supplemented their contributions with some of her reflections on her own experiences and points of view, and tried to unpack some of the concepts brought up here and there when she thought it might help the audience.

From there, things became a bit tricky, since there were several directions in which to go and it was not clear what the best structure to follow was, given the time allotted and that they needed to stop and get members of the audience involved. Like I said, it was a difficult assignment for all of them. What emerged was a loosely structured series of interesting reflections from each of them at various points, some healthy disagreements there and here (I think it was good for the public to see that we’re not all cut of the same cloth) – for example between David and Lisa on the meaning of the word “fundamental” when it comes to where to focus effort on discovery (although I think that they agreed more than I think they realized), or between Bob and Adam on aspects of the nature of discovery in observational astronomy vs particle physics – and thoughts on the future of physics in its interactions with other fields (such as Biology – David and Bob disagreed significantly on what constitutes the next step of progress in Biology, and what role physics might play). Prompted by questions from the audience, there were also reflections on the state of education in physics in America (since the future sort of depends a lot on having young people enter the field), the prospects of plasma physics and energy research, and a number of other things.

Keep an eye on the ACP website for the video of this event (which I presume will appear soon), if you are interested in learning more.

Afterwards, there was a nice reception at the center itself, with lots to drink and eat, and plenty of people with whom to shake hands and exchange thoughts. There was quite a variety of people there from Aspen and beyond. (Amusing story: At one point, a woman came over to talk to me because she works on trying to get more young people – especially of African descent – into doing science and wondered, since I was (apparently) the only person of African descent in the audience, what I thought of such work… Well, in a perfect piece of timing, a young student came over at that moment to ask to meet me and shake my hand because he’s a fan of the work I do on the TV science documentary shows. It was a pleasure to say hi to him, and in that moment it was almost as though I’d paid him to appear the instant such a conversation were to arise! This allowed for an easy transition for me into what I think about outreach efforts and introduce myself to her and to introduce her to various people who also are interested in such effort.)

I had to break off at 5:15pm to go home to change to dinner at 6:00pm. A number of groups were dining at various Aspen restaurants for the celebration. It turned out that the groups were organized by decade, and so I was sitting with people from the 90′s, meaning that they first started coming to the Aspen Center for Physics in the 90s (including a fellow blogger Stein Sigurdsson from Dynamics of Cats). I enjoyed the company of those at my table a lot (in fact, I’d dined with several of them just the day before in a(slightly)nother context – I’ll report on that later). After dinner, it was celebratory dessert and drinks at the terrace of the Wheeler Opera house.

Then, having celebrated enough, I went home to watch some Olympics and relax**.

Tomorrow there is a day long Science fair in the town of Aspen itself, as part of the celebrations, so if you are around, do pop by (and bring the youngsters if you have any)!

-cvj

*And digitally fix one or few details that got botched when trying to work with a rather thick pen.
**And splash colour, digitally, on to the sketch.

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