In the late 1970s, the National Science Foundation was looking for a place to establish an institute dedicated to bringing scholars and scientists together to advance the field of physics.
Four faculty members in UC Santa Barbara’s Physics Department took up the NSF on its wish for a place where physicists could collaborate for long periods of time.
Since 1979, scientists and scholars have descended on UCSB to research some of the biggest questions and discuss some of the latest discoveries in the field.
For the past 37 years and counting, the NSF has helped fund the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics, which averages 800 to 1,000 visitors per year, according the institute’s director, Lars Bildsten, a professor in UCSB’s Physics Department.
“We really work with the international physics community to identify those specific topics that would benefit from an extended gathering of physicists who really come here and work for typically two to three months,” Bildsten told Noozhawk.
The visiting scholars have turned to a range of accommodations while calling Santa Barbara their temporary home, including on-campus housing, hotels and houses in the nearby communities.
The disparate housing situations typically restrict scientists’ collaboration to normal working hours, Bildsten said.
The need for integrated scholars-only housing began to be satisfied, however, in the fall of 2014, when a Berkshire Hathaway corporate executive, Charles Munger, donated $65 million of the company’s stock to UCSB for a visiting scholars residence on El Colegio Road, near the main campus.
It was the largest gift in the university’s history.
A 1.2-mile bike or bus ride to the institute, the three-story residence will feature 61 beds when it opens early next year, between UCSB’s San Clemente apartments and Los Carneros Road.
The residence’s units will resemble a cross between a fully functional apartment and the college dorms down the street.
Eighteen one-bedroom units with their own private bathroom, kitchen and living room will be for single visitors. Another 11 two-bedroom units, though, can accommodate the many scholars who bring their families, or two separate scholars living together like their undergraduate students.
There will be an additional three units with a whole seven bedrooms each, where visitors have their own private bathrooms, but share one large kitchen, living room, dining room and meeting room with their fellow researchers.
The shared living spaces allow for more continuous collaboration, Bildsten said, which better facilitates new ideas and “enhanced impacts” in the field of physics.
“We discovered our visitors really love (that type of set-up) if they’re here for just a few weeks because it really allows them to keep talking with their colleagues — cooking together, eating together, dining together,” he said.
The residence will also feature a variety of casual recreation and meeting spaces that will make the residence the go-to evening and weekend place for both visiting and regular institute folks, Bildsten said.
“You never know when a conversation or something somebody says in one of the talks is going to make a difference,” said Tim Jones, a physicist at the University of Liverpool in England who is arriving at the institute later this month to continue a long-time collaboration with Martin Einhorn, a UCSB research professor and former deputy director of the institute.
“There have been several occasions when just talking to people about what you’re doing or what they’re doing over coffee or a drink just makes that difference,” Jones told Noozhawk. “For me, at least, it tends to happen at a fairly informal level.”
In addition to physics conferences, the KITP puts on nearly a dozen programs per year, two to three of which are happening at any one time.
Each program features about two dozen physicists who work and research together in UCSB’s Kohn Hall, where the institute is located.
One of the most recent programs held at the KITP assessed the scientific impact of the first discovery of gravitational waves — difficult-to-detect distortions in the curvature of spacetime that ripple out most conspicuously from cataclysmic cosmic events and interactions between hefty cosmic bodies.
Gravitational waves from the merger of two black holes some billion light years away were detected indirectly by the internationally supported Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO).
“That was a really exciting discovery, and one that really brought up a lot of questions about how stars that are that massive — 30 times the mass of the Sun — could be so close to one another through their whole lifetimes, all the way to their end state as a black hole, and stay tight enough that they would eventually merge,” Bildsten said.
“And so that discovery really triggered us to do a program — a short program, in this case — to bring together astrophysicists and the experimentalists from LIGO to discuss the ramifications of such a discovery.”
A similar program triggered by another momentous discovery in physics, that of the Higgs boson, was held in 2012.
The new housing accommodations are expected to only make the KITP and these types of programs even more appealing to the international physics community.
“Santa Barbara is where one goes because it has the funding and it has the infrastructure and staff to arrange accommodation, and particularly, accommodation if you want to bring your spouse and family,” Jones said. “And so it’s very attractive, and, of course, it’s a lovely place.”