A Look Into UCSB’s Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics

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Photo by Samuel Yang | The Bottom Line

Xander Apicella

UCSB is renowned for its emphasis on research at all levels — everyone, from freshman to professor, is encouraged to make their mark.

UCSB went from a small, accessible UC — best known for its partying reputation — to the powerhouse it is today, with six Nobel laureates on its staff and top-of-the-line programs in materials, engineering, physics, and other disciplines. Over time, the school’s admission requirements have become increasingly stringent and its pull in the scientific community has grown.

To Bob Sugar, an emeritus physics professor at UCSB, this shift was more than a twist of fate. He came to UCSB because of a belief in its interdisciplinary nature and strong staff. This belief lead him to an instrumental role in the creation of the Institute for Theoretical Physics.

Today, the Institute receives the majority of its money from the National Science Foundation (NSF), along with a variety of private donors. One generous donor had his name, Kavli, appended to the institute, known today as the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (KITP).

A flow of experienced people with bold ideas come to UCSB’s KITP to learn, teach, and collaborate on diverse research topics — six to eight per year. It is a national laboratory, the first of its kind. It has evolved into a global phenomenon. It attracts researchers of various backgrounds and specialties from all over the world.

Boris Kayser, a member of the NSF, was one of the first to propose the concept of a research lab like the KITP.

When Sugar first heard of this idea — a lab where individuals cooperated across disciplines to pursue new, cutting-edge research topics in a theoretical landscape — he thought UCSB was the school for the job. It had four theoretical physicists at the time, with specialties ranging from condensed matter to quantum gravity to particle physics.

“Physics was going through a phase where it was less separated into disciplines,” said James Hartle, a physics professor emeritus at UCSB, in an interview with The Bottom Line. “It was less organized. And so there was an idea that we should try to foster…these interdisciplinary connections. And the KITP was one solution to that.”

Hartle and Sugar, along with professors Doug Scalapino and Ray Sawyer, began to formulate their proposal for an institute at UCSB. Others thought they were wasting their time.

“I was just taking the bus,” Sugar said. “I was very excited about this and was explaining it to somebody in a different department. And he said, ‘why would you waste your time with that, Santa Barbara never gets things like that.’ Indeed…there wasn’t, yet…a national scale research institute on campus.”

To add to the enormity of the project, the concept of an institute in any location was controversial. As Sugar said, the sentiment of many was that “there was a traditional way of doing research at universities and that’s what we should do [because] it’s very successful.”

Sugar and his team sought to subvert tradition, bringing their proposal before the NSF in Washington, D.C. They were up against institutions that outranked UCSB by far at the time, such as Caltech, Columbia, and Yale.

“The NSF announced that if they had an institute at all, it would be in Santa Barbara — which was great, in the sense that we won the competition — but a little disheartening that we really hadn’t gotten the prize yet,” Sugar said.

The NSF was unsure it wanted to fund anyone at all without an outstanding director lined up to head the institute. Sugar and his team delivered, bringing in Walter Kohn as the institute’s first director in 1979. Kohn earned the NSF’s approval quickly — by then, he had already won a Nobel Prize for his density-functional theory of interacting electrons and was a leading figure in condensed matter physics.

After Kohn left in 1984, Robert Schrieffer stepped in as director. He had already earned a Nobel Prize in 1972 for his work on superconductors, and continued to study their viability at high temperatures.

The next director was James Langer, who served from 1989 to 1995. He directed the design of the KITP’s current headquarters, Kohn Hall, by contemporary architect Michael Graves.

The building’s style orbited around a single desire: to generate faculty interactions with spontaneity and frequency.

After Langer served as director, James Hartle stepped in. At the time, he was a leader in the interdisciplinary field of quantum cosmology, which searches for a unifying thread between the worlds of the very small and the very large.

“My particular interest is in the very beginning,” Hartle said. “So Stephen Hawking and I put out a theory of the quantum beginning of the universe — the wave function of the universe — in 1983. Finding the consequences of that is a big effort.”

David Gross followed in 1997, winning a Nobel prize for his discovery of asymptotic freedom during his time as the director of the KITP. This discovery lead to the modern understanding of the strong nuclear force one of the four fundamental forces of the universe.

The current director, Lars Bildsten, stepped in for Gross in 2012.  His most notable work is in high-energy astrophysics, especially his work on the theory of stellar structure and the phenomena associated with neutron stars (such as nuclear burning and generation of gravity waves).

The KITP has pioneered new fields, like particle astrophysics (by embracing the theory of dark matter and dark energy), quantum computing, string-theory, and Bose-Einstein condensation theory.

“It attracted a lot of outstanding people,” Sugar said.

Today, the KITP focuses on utilizing machine learning concepts to understand the Rough High-Dimensional Landscape Problem and Quantum Many-Body Physics. Though these subjects are at the forefront of the KITP’s work, they do not limit the content explored there.

“Once I went to a lecture by a music composer,” Morrison said. “They talked about how they got ideas for their compositions.”

It is this warm embrace of external subject matter — with the acknowledgement of its importance and possible connection to their own work — that makes the KITP so valuable. Many of the researchers that go through stay, but most move on.

Around 2300 pass through, with each spending an average of 23 days there. Those who stay become an integral part of UCSB and build further its commitment to research, learning, and the improvement of the world as we know it.