Kavli’s Institutes

When I was at MIT I worked on a cute little planet-finder satellite whose instruments were built and tested on the 5th floor of a certain Building 37. 37 was how it was known around campus, but it had an official name, too, it was the Kavli Center for Astrophysics and Space Research. Anyways, they gave me a key to the front doors for after-hours access and as I had scant few keys I took a little pride in letting it jangle around on my keychain. I ended up doing my senior thesis with this group, come spring I probably spent more nights in that building than in my dorm room, going through tank after tank of liquid nitrogen. Where I really wanted to be back then, though, was one floor up. The theoretical astrophysics at MIT happened on the 6th floor of the Kavli Building. It was much better lit, for some reason, with an open floor plan, wood doors and accents, lounges and common rooms, populated with couches, tables, coffee stations, fresh paint coated every wall. It just exuded this warmth that contrasted the long narrow bleakness of the 5th floor hall. When I took Quantum, General Relativity, I had occasion to venture up there, to drop off homework, to visit a professor, to attend office hours in one of its well-groomed nooks. But I never did work up the nerve to ask to join a theory group. I had this confidence issue that I’ve still not managed to shake completely.

Anyways that was the Kavli Center I knew at MIT. Building 37 where I studied physics and researched engineering. Fast forward a year later I would be so shocked in my sojourns to come across another Kavli Institute. Number two. This time at Stanford– KIPAC, it’s called, its hard-to-pronounce acronym short for Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology. Now this was a little different. Stanford is famously home to the longest linear particle accelerator in the world, so naturally, much of what goes on in astrophysics here acquires a particle physics tint– one of the more interesting interdisciplinary fields in my opinion. This Kavli Institute is a bit of a maze. Forget the long, straight halls of Building 37, this one’s filled with round-abouts and dead-ends. It took me 2 months to find the staircase to the second floor. Even so, out of habit I still come in on the elevator and leave through the patio. I’m working with a theory group here. So it resembles more the 6th floor than the 5th. I’ve yet to see a liquid nitrogen tank floating around the halls and that’s just fine with me. They’ve set me up in the visitor’s office and sometimes when most everyone is gone in the evenings I take off my shoes and plod around on the hardwood, marveling at just how clean and smooth the floors are.

Where there’s two, there must be more. Today I was reading an article on a rendition of Copenhagen to take place at UCSB, when I ran into mention of Kavli Institute Number 3:

Gross, director of UCSB’s Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics, plays Heisenberg — whom he met early in his career. The play is structured around Heisenberg’s famous uncertainty principle: the dizzying notion that observing an event changes it, and so nothing can be known with precision. (…)

Aside from 9 mentions of the Nobel Prize in a 500 word article, it’s actually pretty interesting. I found it particularly curious the bit at the end, where Gross mentions having been able to ascertain the actors’ lack of scientific background from a few telling slips during the performance. Considering a play is scripted I wonder what he could mean.

Where there’s three, there must be many. So finally, today, I looked up the Kavli Institutes. 15 scattered all around the world, seeded by one Fred Kavli, physicist by training, engineer and businessman by trade, one of the world’s most successful private contractors by the age of 40– a self-made man in every way. Some of these institutes he started from scratch, some were existing organizations to which he gave huge sums of money, all in order to further three specific fields which he finds to be most promising: Astrophysics/Theoretical Physics, Nanoscience, and Neuroscience (‘from the biggest, to the smallest, to the most complex‘, he says). The goal? To seed new ideas in their earliest stages, to be the first to offer support, and no doubt to make a name for himself as one of the greatest philanthropists alive.

Right now I’m amused to read about a man like this. At this point, he has made more contribution to science as an entrepreneur than he ever would have as a research scientist or even a professor. Just something to think about.


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