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Ken Bloom | USLHC | USA

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Physics buildings, then and now

My recent travels to CERN, and the long plane trips required, have finally allowed me to catch up on my back copies of Physics Today, the monthly magazine published by the American Institute of Physics. I particularly enjoyed the April issue. One feature article was about the origin of the term (and concept of) phase space. I should probably leave it for Flip to explain this, but phase space gives us a way to simultaneously visualize the spatial configuration and the momentum of a physical system. Just how it became a “space” and why there is a “phase” associated with it turns out to be an interesting story. There was also an article on spintronics, an emerging field that several of my departmental colleagues are working in, so I got to learn more about how that works.

However, what really caught my attention was the cover story on the design of three major physics research buildings that were opened in the late 1960’s, and what has become of them since. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two most iconic buildings, designed by famous architects, have become less useful over time (one of them is in fact abandoned), while the third, a less-famous building at Brookhaven National Laboratory, is still going strong.

This is of particular interest to me right now because my department in the midst of the move to our totally new physics building. I have been on the department’s new-building committee since the project started almost four years ago, and it has been fascinating to see our building go through the design process and finally come to life. (This “new building” does have a tentative name, but I will wait until the Board of Regents approves it next month before I say what it is.) I think that the public spaces are really fabulous; they are going to be quite welcoming and will be a showplace for the department and the work that we do. The moving process itself has been, um, disruptive. It hasn’t been too bad for me personally, as I don’t have a lot of equipment to move (most of mine is at CERN), but for colleagues who have delicate equipment that needs to be dismantled, moved across campus and reconstructed, this is not going to be a fun summer. It will be very interesting to see how we bring our new home to life. We’re just beginning to learn the quirks of the building, not to mention figuring out how to find our colleagues in their new offices. Geography is destiny; we used to be spread across three buildings, and people’s offices and labs weren’t necessarily proximate to those of their closest collaborators. The new building is going to shake everything up, and we’ll see what new science results!

Our new building!

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