Institute features top-notch physicists

Jacqueline Couillard

The 1980s were a decade of big science and political upheaval. The combination of free-flowing funds for scientific research and the collapse of the Cold War political order led to the establishment of an unusual institute at the University.
Money for science was often attracted to expensive research equipment that could be named for a donor. What set the Theoretical Physics Institute apart was that its only high-powered equipment would be the minds of the people who would work there.
The institute was largely the brainchild of Professor Stephen Gasiorowicz and William Fine, a University alumnus and local businessman with a lifelong interest in physics. Fine donated funds in 1987 to start the institute.
“Theoretical physics isn’t a sexy field,” said Gasiorowicz, who helped oversee the institute’s birth. The institute was intended to focus on theoretical work, some of which would become the springboard for experiments done by other scientists.
At least two of the seven members of the institute have laws of physics named after them. Theoretical work at the institute helps to fuel practical advances such as miniaturizing computers, developing more efficient power lines and improving the technology behind cellular phones, said Allen Goldman, the head of the School of Physics and Astronomy.
Yet 10 years ago, the institute began without people — Fine, Gasiorowicz and the physics department head at the time established the institute before they were able to hire any scientists to staff it.
Finding top minds in the areas of high-energy and condensed-matter physics who were willing to theorize for the institute was another potential barrier. Luring faculty away from other institutions would have been extremely difficult, said Gasiorowicz.
But in 1989 the Soviet Union began allowing scientists to visit abroad for extended periods, said Gasiorowicz.
Professor Larry McLerran, the institute’s first director, recruited five of the institute’s seven faculty members from the USSR.
“Larry McLerran had visited the Soviet Union many times and knew pretty much everybody in the field of high-energy physics. And he was able to persuade three of the most outstanding physicists in this area to come and join the TPI, ” said Gasiorowicz.
The three were Arkady Vainshtein, Mikhail Shifman and Mikhail Voloshin.
Later Boris Shklovskii, Leonid Glazman, and Anatoly Larkin joined the institute.
At the end of the Cold War, McLerran was one of the first to consider hiring Russian scientists looking for a socially or scientifically stable environment in which to continue their work, Glazman said.
Meeting scientists he knew only by reputation was a very emotional experience, Glazman said.
Glazman was one of four of the institute’s members who came to the University never having lived in the United States before, he said.
Professor Boris Shklovskii said he left the former Soviet Union because he wanted to raise his family in a more stable social environment than the collapsing East Bloc.
The leave from his previous position was for three years, but at the end of that time, he decided to stay at the University rather than return to Russia, in part because science was no longer well supported there, said Shklovskii.
Glazman said that it was a risky move for McLerran to recruit people based entirely upon their publications, because he did not know whether they had the skills required to collaborate and adjust to new surroundings; nor did he know their teaching abilities.
“It was a gamble, I think, but it paid off very well,” Glazman said.
Examples of that payoff include improved name recognition for the University and the international following that the institute’s members have gained.
Professor Shifman, a co-author of one of the most-cited papers in high-energy physics with Vainshtein and another scientist, said the work and reputation of people at the institute has attracted postdoctoral students from all over the world.
Professor Anatoly Larkin, the newest addition to the institute’s staff, has earned the London Medal for his work in low-temperature physics. Shklovskii said the award is second only to a Nobel Prize for prestige in that branch of physics.
Larkin, like the other members of the institute, has attracted a following of his own.
“He’s kind of a magnet for brilliant young minds,” said Goldman.