SSI a Triumph in Science and
By Shawne Neeper
The 2004 SLAC Summer Institute (SSI)
bubbled with the vitality of a new, topic-a-day format that brought
textbook learning directly alongside cutting-edge research. Themed on
Nature’s Greatest Puzzles, SSI opened on August 2 with the first puzzle:
dark matter. In each of the nine weekdays that followed, SSI’s 332
participants explored another Great Puzzle from the ground up.
Shown (left to right): SSI
Coordinator Ellie Lwin (COM) enjoys Hawaiian night with costume
contest runner-up Louise Riofrio (San Francisco State), winner
Philip Amanik (UC San Diego) and SSI Program Director Charles
Prescott (EA). (Photo by JoAnne Hewett)
Each day began with three, one-hour talks
covering background and current understanding in one of the 10 puzzles.
After lunch, students returned to Panofsky Auditorium to hear
researchers from around the world report their latest advances on the
puzzle of the day.
SSI Program Directors JoAnne Hewett (THP),
Tuneyoshi Kamae (GLAST), John Jaros (EA) and Charles Prescott (EA) had
been working since September 2003 to plan this year’s program. “Student
reactions have been very positive,” Hewett said. “They liked hearing in
the afternoon how questions from the morning talks are being answered by
The topical organization—in contrast to
the traditional SSI division between lectures for seven days and
conference presentations for the final two and a half days—was a boon
for scientists interested in attending SSI a la carte. “Students can
stay for two weeks and get the entire scope,” said Kamae. “Those who are
interested in a smaller set [of topics] can come and listen to those
“This was a brilliant idea,” said David
Leith (EB), who helped launch the SSI with Sid Drell (DO) in 1973 and
served as a Program Director through 1997. “I think that the magic was
in a format change that brought a mix of scientific interests in the
attendees and allowed a very interesting coherence between the school
lectures and the experiments… All the people who worked on it should be
told how good it was.”
Behind the Scenes
“It was really gratifying to see that the
hard work we put into vitalizing SSI paid off,” said SLAC Conference
Coordinator Maura Chatwell (COM), who works year-round to arrange SSI
registration and logistics. Each summer, Chatwell, SSI Coordinator Ellie
Lwin (COM) and a cadre of summer student assistants go full steam to
provide smooth operations for two weeks of talks, tours (this year to
SLAC, Stanford and Lick Observatory), food and mingling.
SSI students enjoy the
California sunshine. (Photo by Harvey Lynch)
This was summer student John McLaughlin’s
(COM) forth year helping Chatwell with SSI nuts and bolts, in particular
getting lecture notes from speakers to students and posting
information—including videos of the talks—on the Web (http://www-conf.slac.stanford.edu/ssi/2004/Default.htm).
“It was a challenge to be able to deal with more speakers,” Chatwell
said. “We usually have about 35 per year. This year we had 54.”
SSI 2004 required some 16-hour days, from
morning set up at the Auditorium to late-evening take down after social
hours, and the hard work paid off.
All Work and Lots of Play
When asked on the SSI feedback form what
they liked best about this year’s experience, responders most often
mentioned the interweaving of theory and research, and social gatherings
that fostered discussion.
“We kept them busy every night,” said
Hewett. Selected attendees presented their own thesis work during two
evening poster sessions. Other nights, attendees converged outside
Panofsky Auditorium for snacks and drinks, joined the annual SLAC versus
SSI soccer game (which was won by SSI 4 to 3) and gathered at one of
three themed dinners.
“By far the most popular was Hawaiian
Night,” Hewett said, “when we gave out prizes for the best costumes.” A
first prize basket of goodies went to UC San Diego graduate student
Philip Amanik for his grass skirt and coconut bikini top.
Attendees indicated that conversation at
the gatherings helped them to assimilate the day’s exploration of a
great puzzle. As one SSI student wrote, “It was good to have some
theoretical and some experimental talks… and the microbrew beer was a
QUOTES FROM SSI:
All our friends who came from Japan and
Europe were very, very pleased with this format.
We felt that we injected good excitement
and enthusiasm into social hours and dinners, which resulted in the
physicists really interacting with each other and having fun.
Many participants expressed appreciation
for the new format. Going into the SSI, we didn’t know how well that
would go over, but I think we will have to keep that change in future
years. It was a big success.
Nima [Arkani-Hamad (Harvard University)]
ended the SSI with his usual flourish. He challenged the audience to
solve one of nature’s greatest puzzles by turning our standard
assumptions upside down and backwards, so they fit just so. Bravo!