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Physicists Praise Radcliffe ‘Cluster’

By Ella A. Hoffman, Crimson Staff Writer

When Raphael Bousso was invited to come to Cambridge for a year studying theoretical physics, he says he didn’t know what to expect.

“When I was first contacted, I had no idea what the Radcliffe Institute was,” says Bousso, an assistant professor of physics at the University of California at Berkeley. “It took me time to form a picture of what it would mean for me to be [at Radcliffe] instead of at a physics department.”

Despite his uncertainty, Bousso decided to make the cross-country journey last fall to Radcliffe’s Putnam House last fall.

Six other scientists joined him as part of the Institute’s first research cluster—a departure from Radcliffe’s traditional humanities focus.

These seven scientists are part of the Institute’s fellowship program, Radcliffe’s focus since it merged with Harvard in 1999.

Dubbed the “cosmology cluster,” the interests of the scientists who make up the group in fact encompass a much broader range of fields including cosmology, astrophysics and planetary sciences.

Bousso and his peers note that the small group of scientists has the capacity to make a big bang at Radcliffe, bridging the gap between science and the humanities and between disciplines within the larger scientific world.

“Their decision to include science in what seems to be a more humanities-oriented institute tells of progress,” he says. “It will sharpen and refine the image of the Institute.”

Radcliffe’s Changing Universe

Many see this foray into science as the first step toward a more balanced fellowship program.

“The cluster was an opportunity to get a very strong group of scientists together and establish the credibility of science at Radcliffe,” says Lisa Randall ’83, a physics professor who helped recruit scientists to the cluster after she came to Harvard from MIT in the fall of 2001. “Science is important, and it will strengthen the image of Radcliffe to have strong science.”

This year, scientists at Radcliffe converged at Putnam House, tucked just off Brattle Street and conveniently located among the Cambridge goliaths of science—the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Harvard’s facilities and MIT just down the river.

The house’s close proximity to other scientific institutions has provided numerous opportunities for collaboration, fellows say.

In addition to the group’s weekly meetings at Putnam House, fellows have participated in a lecture series held at Radcliffe this year which attracted physicists from across Boston, co-sponsored by Radcliffe and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

But Putnam House, fellows say, offers them something Harvard’s nearby physics department and the Center for Astrophysics cannot.

The flexible structure of the fellowship program creates the opportunity for things outside the norm, such as breakfast meetings and informal collaboration, Randall says.

And though Radcliffe is just beginning to emphasize science, fellows say this year’s cluster was a promising start.

“I don’t feel like I’m on the periphery. I feel like it’s all happening here,” Bousso says.

“On one hand Radcliffe offered the proximity to one of the best groups in my field, and they are offering me that in an unusual setting so that we have a life line to other kinds of people,” he says.

In Harvard’s Sphere

But the influence of Radcliffe fellows extends beyond the gates of Radcliffe Yard.

Randall’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences connections facilitated frequent interactions between the fellows and Harvard’s department of physics. And the cluster’s cosmology focus benefited the department as well.

“Cosmology is not overemphasized at the physics department—this cluster fills a gap there,” Bousso says.

In recent years, interest in cosmology has skyrocketed, according to Andrew Strominger, director of graduate studies in the physics department.

And with the new science cluster, he says, “there was some notion of fortifying things in that direction.”

Radcliffe’s science fellows also work closely with the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

“It has created a little bit of energy in this area,” says Daniel P. Schrag, the department’s director of graduate studies. “This group has catalyzed interactions across the department.”

And the group’s combination of cosmology, astrophysics and planetary science experts has helped to create stronger links between these disciplines, Schrag says.

This close collaboration with FAS scientists was something Randall and Radcliffe Dean of Science Barbara J. Grosz had in mind when they first recruited this cluster’s participants to Radcliffe—and something they hope to continue with future fellowships.

A Critical Mass

The fellows, most of whom are professors, have left teaching obligations behind for the year to pursue other interests, and most say they are enjoying the experience.

“This has been a tremendous opportunity for me,” says Eanna Flanagan, a fellow this year who is an associate professor of physics and astronomy at Cornell University. “At Cornell, I am a standard professor and there are so many demands on my time that I can’t focus on my research. Here I get to spend all my time talking to people about physics.”

And this diverse group of scientists say their conversations often explore unexpected territory.

The “critical mass” of science fellows gathered at Radcliffe this year encouraged increased collaboration, Flanagan says.

“In this relaxed setting it was possible for each of us to get a good introduction to different fields from our own areas of expertise,” Randall says.

A New Language

Though the occasional scientist has come through Radcliffe’s gates, this year’s science cluster marks a significant change from past years, when science scholarship received far less attention than work in the humanities and the arts.

The cluster has also helped to bridge the gap between science and the humanities at Radcliffe by bringing together academics and experts in fields who normally might not encounter one another in a professional setting.

“This is the first time since graduate school where I would be in an environment where I interact with people not physicists,” Bousso says.

Although the science cluster is separated by situation and subject matter from the other fellows, Flanagan says he feels he is part of a community nonetheless.

“I feel divided from the other fellows in the sense that we don’t have a strong overlap in any intellectual sense,” Flanagan says.

Bousso and Flanagan say that they try to overcome this gap by attending events and talks given by the other fellows.

“It has been an interesting opportunity to interact with so many humanities people,” Flanagan says. “It’s a new language.”

After the success of this year’s research cluster, Radcliffe officials say more scientists will come to Putnam House next year.

Plans for a similar cluster in computer science are in the works, according to Flanagan.

—Staff writer Ella A. Hoffman can be reached at ehoffman@fas.harvard.edu.

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