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Theoretical and Computational Physicists Meet

Monday, August 17, 2009

NSF Grant to Hampshire College Supports Physics Workshop,
Professor Herb Bernstein Signs Anacapa-Amherst Agreement

Traditionally, when one thinks of high-powered theoretical physicists working in pure research, large universities come to mind—not four-year colleges and universities. But perhaps we should rethink that image: A group of physicists who work in primarily undergraduate institutions met in Amherst August 17-20 to discuss their scientific work, collaboration across disciplinary boundaries and experiences at critical career stages of researchers.

Anacapa Agreement
The National Workshop on Theoretical and Computational Physics was the first major event hosted by the Anacapa Society, a new national professional organization to support and promote research by theoretical and computational physicists at primarily undergraduate institutions (PUI).

A grant awarded to Hampshire College by the National Science Foundation is supporting the workshop, which is being held at neighboring Amherst College. Amherst signed a letter of understanding in June to become the Anacapa Society's official home.

Hampshire College physics professor Herb Bernstein, a co-founder of the Anacapa Society and one of the signers of that letter of agreement (see photo), said he was delighted that the organization is being hosted within the Five College consortium. He feels Anacapa could play a significant role in shaping professional discussion around research.

"Although science is often thought of as value-free, what is produced is influenced by outside circumstances and the framing interests of society and of scientists," said Bernstein. "Undergraduate institutions, particularly liberal arts colleges such as Hampshire that encourage and facilitate work across fields, provide a setting for teaching and research that is more tightly connected to other disciplines. The result is possibly more self-aware and socially responsible sciences, well worthy of exploration and development."

While officially formed in 2007, the Anacapa Society's origins date back to a meeting at a 1999 Newton Institute workshop in Cambridge, England. Bernstein, together with three other physicists from undergraduate institutions working in Quantum Information science, discussed the possibility of forming a group for theorists at liberal arts colleges.

Independently, in 2001, a member of the faculty at Carleton College worked with the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara to sponsor such a gathering of PUI theorists at the KITP in 2003. In July 2007, Hampshire's Bernstein and Hobart &William Smith Colleges' professor Donald Spector led a two week KITP mini-conference and the Anacapa Society—which now has over 110 members in all parts of the nation—was launched. Two Amherst College professors attended that workshop in Santa Barbara, and later approached Amherst's administration about hosting and providing the society with necessary institutional infrastructure and support.

The name "Anacapa Society" is meant to reflect the organization's origins and mission. Anacapa Island, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara, is known for its distinctive natural bridge, which serves as a metaphor for the vision of the society: "To connect theoretical physicists at primarily undergraduate institutions with the larger physics and academic communities, while at the same time affirming their distinctive identity."

The Five College area has a distinguished history of producing physicists, among them Hampshire College alumni Lee Smolin and Mary James. Smolin is a founding member on the faculty of the Perimeter Institute of Physics in Ontario, Canada, and author, most recently, of The Trouble with Physics. James, a physics professor at Reed College, was named by Rolling Stone magazine as "The Best Physics Teacher in America."

David Gross, director of the Kavli Institute and recipient of the 2004 Nobel Prize in physics said of the new organization: "I am delighted to witness the launching of the Anacapa Society and proud of the help that the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics has given to this organization. Through our KITP Scholars Program that brings theoretical physicists from primarily undergraduate institutions to our Institute for annual two-week visits, we have endeavored to help physicists at institutions with a strong undergraduate teaching mission maintain a vigorous research program. We believe that strong research is of paramount importance to quality undergraduate education and to science as a whole. I am sure the Anacapa Society will play an essential role in this effort, and I wish it well."

For more information about the organization, go to its website,


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