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Lars Bildsten Takes Over as Director of UCSB’s Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics

Following in the footsteps of Nobel laureate David Gross, physics professor charts a course into a future that includes a Higgs boson particle element

Earlier this summer, UCSB physics professor Lars Bildsten took over Nobel laureate David Gross’ position as director of UCSB’s Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics.

To make the decision, Kavli’s advisory board — a group of 18 esteemed physicists — spent years extensively reviewing candidates from around the world, but decided the best choice for the position was already at the university. The KITP, which was founded in 1979, is one of the most renowned institutions for the study of theoretical physics in the world, and past directors have included three Nobel laureates.

The KITP operates with a $4.6 million budget from the National Science Foundation and includes five permanent members and 12-15 postdoctoral researchers. Gross had served as director since 1997 and remains a permanent member of the institute after stepping down.

According to Bildsten, one of his primary responsibilities as director is facilitating the development of KITP’s programs, in which theoretical physicists come from across the globe for anywhere from two weeks to three months at a time to focus intensely on a topic within the field or discuss implications of major discoveries. The institute holds 12 of these programs a year, and each will host around 25 scholars.

“(The KITP) is really a users facility for the theoretical physics community worldwide,” Bildsten said. “It allows participants to get away from the day-to-day business of academic life and give all of their focus to their research. To them, they feel like they are in seventh heaven.”

As director, Bildsten will collaborate with the advisory board and the theoretical physics community to determine what they believe will be the most topical issues within the field, then develop a program and advertise and solicit applicants. Bildsten said the institute aims to make programs center around cutting-edge topics by planning them in accordance to potential major discoveries.

“We are trying to look ahead and see when there is going to be a big release of data and plan programs around this,” said Bildsten, who assumed his new role on July 1. “It’s a little hard to get the timing right but we do what we can.”

For example, the institute has scheduled a program about this year’s discovery of the Higgs boson particle in April 2013, which is when the next major announcement in the research is slated to be made. According to Bildsten, programs have already been planned out through the summer of 2014 and 80 percent of these will have a strong experimental component.

Bildsten said one of his most important goals as director is to establish a Residence, which can accommodate about 50 scholars at a time to further collaborate and discuss ideas.

Bildsten received his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Cornell University in 1991 and then spent three years at the California Institute of Technology as a research fellow and four years as an associate and assistant professor in UC Berkeley’s Physics and Astronomy departments before joining the UCSB faculty and KITP in 1999. His research focus is theoretical astrophysics and he has been bestowed with numerous prominent honors and fellowships throughout his career.

Noozhawk intern Patrick Kulp can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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