Known at the National Science Foundation (NSF) as the “Gang of Four,” UC Santa Barbara physics professors Raymond "Ray" Sawyer, Robert "Bob" Sugar, James “Jim” Hartle, and Douglas “Doug” Scalapino (pictured above from right to left) developed the proposal that unexpectedly captured the NSF’s attention and ultimately the $1 million-a-year grant which placed the Institute for Theoretical Physics at UC Santa Barbara. All four physicists arrived on campus in the 1960s to develop their careers. Amid the turmoil of a decade that saw an oil spill and social change, the Gang of Four each came to UC Santa Barbara to build something positive. The Institute for Theoretical Physics — later named for innovative philanthropist Fred Kavli — would become a turning point for the campus and for scientists around the world.
In the 1970s, UC Santa Barbara had a small physics department, so its few researchers were close-knit and collaborative out of necessity. Jim, Ray, Doug, and Bob found themselves working together on interdisciplinary problems in theoretical physics that ranged from condensed matter to neutron stars. Their productive partnership gave rise to a hypothesis: What if a program created this atmosphere on a much larger scale by inviting diverse, interdisciplinary scientists to tackle problems together?
“We had an idea for an institute based on visitors who would decide what programs to work on with people from all over the world for an extended period of time,” said Bob. “Ray suggested we write a letter to Boris Kayser, program director for theoretical physics [from 1972-2001] at the NSF to recommend how we would organize it.” On one morning bus ride to campus, Bob told an incredulous fellow commuter about their NSF letter.
“He said to me, ‘You’re crazy to waste your time on that, that sort of thing never comes to Santa Barbara!’ It’s fair to say there was no research organization on campus with national perspective, but shortly afterwards, there began to be. It was the first step in UC Santa Barbara attracting national research institutions,” said Bob.
Shortly after the Gang of Four submitted their letter, the NSF called for million-dollar proposals that would fund an institute based on the gang’s ideas. Ray, Bob, Jim, and Doug had mixed feelings.
“Bob was delighted, but I was downcast,” said Doug, who began with modest expectations. “I just wanted some grad students.” Doug felt their chances would fall in competition with top universities, but Jim was thrilled.
“We were upwardly mobile and this grant was a way up,” said Jim. “It was time to get to work!”
With Yale and Caltech among their prestigious competitors, the Gang of Four knew UC Santa Barbara had to shine in order to win over the NSF. The wider physics community debated whether an institute was a good idea. Prominent scholars preferred to support individual principal investigators. To fortify their prospective institute, the gang had planned a rotating advisory board that would select programs overseen by a director who would be paid by the University of California.
Doug was on his way east to pitch the institute when he realized that in addition to the director, it would be important to have some permanent institute members. The new UC Santa Barbara chancellor, Robert Huttenback, had not yet arrived on campus. So, from the LA airport, Doug called Acting Chancellor Alex Alexander. Alexander said that the idea of having three permanent institute positions supported by UC Santa Barbara was “pretty agreeable.” In his presentation the next day, Doug dropped the word “pretty,” but nevertheless the NSF committee wasn’t about to accept the word of an “Acting Chancellor.”
“The committee asked: ‘Who made this promise and is it in writing?’ We thought we had lost it,” said Ray. The intense questioning shook the Gang of Four and they left the meeting downcast. They needed to talk to Chancellor Huttenback, who they had never met. Someone knew that the new chancellor lived in Pasadena and Doug phoned him. After Doug had introduced himself and updated him on the situation, Huttenback replied:"So they want to play hardball. You tell them that we will do what you have proposed, we will have these three positions and we will do all we can to make the institute work.” Huttenback was indeed a staunch supporter of the institute and a man of his word who played an important role in the establishment of the institute.
“The group of reviewers found the physics program of the institute to be truly outstanding and of the highest quality. They were impressed by the remarkable effectiveness of the Institute in providing cross fertilization between many different areas of physics. The enthusiastic involvement of leading theorists from universities, national laboratories and industry from both the United States and abroad… testifies to the role of the ITP as a leading worldwide institute of physics.”
— Report of the Reviewers of the Institute for Theoretical Physics, UC Santa Barbara, to the National Science Foundation, 1982
The NSF awarded UC Santa Barbara the founding million-dollar-per-year grant for the Institute of Theoretical Physics in 1979. The newly formed ITP drew from a community of physicists to focus on critical issues. Programs would cut across the boundaries of the subfields of physics and between disciplines, like physics and chemistry, math or engineering. First, ITP tackled high energy and condensed matter physics. By the third year, there were more proposals for programs than the ITP could run. It was time for the advisory board to take over.
“There are a lot of institutes around the world that focus on one subject, run by one small group of people,” said Jim. “What made the ITP distinct is that there’s not one group of people who make all scientific decisions. The advisory board and subjects change all the time. It guarantees that whatever the most pressing issue is, we’re doing it.”
ITP’s flexible model and board means that scientists can mount rapid response programs quickly for breaking topics. Subsequent institutes have replicated the ITP model, like the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute at UC Berkeley and the Newton Institute in Cambridge, England. ITP had changed scientists’ approach to research collaborations worldwide, starting with the Gang of Four.
Physics inspired by biology captured Jim’s imagination. A series of ITP talks probed where Earth’s water came from and whether our planet was special in its ability to sustain life. At one talk, famous planetary physicist Dave Stevenson hesitated to share how many habitable planets existed in our galaxy of 11 billion stars. When the audience pushed him, he finally said: five.
“At ITP, a whole paradigm shifted from just a little bit of information,” said Jim.
In the early years when punch cards still programmed computers, scientist Mike Creutz exposed Doug to a model of statistical mechanics. Excited, Doug and Bob discussed how those techniques could solve field theories in high energy and condensed matter physics. The work crossed fields and invented algorithms that are used today.
“That spun out, for me, into a great deal of what I’ve been doing for 40 years,” said Doug. “It was the sort of project meant for the institute: It brought collaborative people together over a long period of time.” As a result, Doug continues to run his condensed matter research group. Many of his core questions remain.
In a field governed by questions, the Gang of Four hesitates to speculate about the future. Walter Kohn’s 1980s aspirations amuse Ray because they remain just that. How do we integrate Einstein’s theory of gravitation with the rest of theoretical physics? (“Still there,” his colleagues interjected with glee.) What are the implications of continued miniaturization in electronics?
“I think that’s good for the next 40 years,” said Ray. “These are tough questions and the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.”
Over its forty-year history, the now KITP (Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics) has incubated breakthroughs in error correction in quantum computing and founded new connections between string theory and condensed matter. Because KITP scientists are nimble and responsive, the institute is advancing fast with a core of brilliant young people. The productive collaboration of the institute’s over 1,000 annual visiting scientists, graduate fellows and postdocs with UC Santa Barbara faculty drives KITP. Cumulatively, visiting scientists invest 23,500 days a year in time at KITP. In turn, KITP invests in a superlative class of graduate fellows and postdoctoral scholars who benefit from interacting with top international scientists in their fields.
“The postdoc program has been fantastic in attracting the very best young people in theoretical physics, and it’s not hard to understand why,” said Bob. “They come here for three years and get to meet the leading people in their field and work on a wide range of problems.”
With such intellectual energy, there’s a real chance of major advances at KITP. Yet as KITP matures, government support tapers, especially for postdoctoral researchers and graduate fellows. Private support now amplifies the work of KITP scientists and entices top candidates to spend time here.
For forty years, KITP has provided a highly flexible, cost-efficient and adaptive community, running programs geared to ongoing and wide-ranging basic science research. These long programs comprise the core of the KITP model and have defined its success. Deep, real-time human interactions — true collaboration — bonds such as the one shared by the Gang of Four — take time to forge. These stimulating connections produce the breakthroughs and the high-impact research for which KITP has been recognized.
“In the future, I hope people say: this institute was always on the boundaries, but remarkably, also at the center,” said Jim.