Sunday, March 22, 2009

At the KITP

Back in 1979 a bunch of theoretical physicists had a brilliant idea. This idea was not an idea about physics, but an idea about where one should think about physics – on the beach. These physicists decided that what the world really needed was a major theoretical physics research center located right on the ocean in Santa Barbara. To this end they founded the Institute for Theoretical Physics (ITP). The idea would be to have a very few high profile physicists as permanent academic staff, and organize rolling conferences on interesting topics that would run for months at a time. Theoretical physicists from around the world would come to visit Santa Barbara for weeks or months, they would discuss physics with each other, and they would be inspired by the beautiful environs. The idea worked wonderfully. Who wouldn’t want to spend a sabbatical by the ocean? Within a decade UCSB had established itself as one of the world’s major centers of theoretical physics – if not the major center. In 2002, the already successful ITP got a huge donation from the Kavli foundation to expand, and was rechristened the KITP.

The organization of the KITP is really phenomenal. They arrange workshops, conferences, housing, and take care of all of the mundane needs of the researchers. When you arrive you are given an office in the KITP and you go to work. If you are lucky (or have friends in high places) you get an office that overlooks the beautiful ocean. (This year, I got an ocean view for the first time). There are chalkboards all over the place for spontaneous discussions, cookies at 3pm every day, and coffee, tea, and hot chocolate cost only 10$ for a three week subscription. If you need to clear your mind, you can go for a walk or a run along the beach. Or you can walk down to Isla-Vista to go to the student haunts (there is a great burrito shop and a great sandwich shop there).

This place is like summer camp for nerds. I’ll be here for the next three weeks. I’m already inspired by the sunshine.

Added: This morning I was at the KITP for sunrise (yeah, I'm kind of still on UK time). Looking out my window I saw dolphins, herons, hummingbirds, and all sorts of other things that I don't know the name of. Tough life, huh?

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