What Is Special About the KITP Mode For Doing Science?

The KITP enables scientists to interact in a way that differs significantly from the ways provided by the customary venues for interaction, as the following account shows.

The standard theory for star formation has assumed the presence of strong magnetic fields in the molecular-hydrogen clouds where stars are formed. Paolo Padoan of UC San Diego has been arguing, on the basis of computer simulations, for weak fields or, more precisely, for a scatter — i.e., in some places strong, in others weak. The test for the scatter model is whether it fits the observations, which are done by radio astronomers, such as Richard Crutcher at the University of Illinois.

But observers talk one language, so to speak; and computer simulators, another. So the problem of testing model against observation turns on communication between people.

Padoan served as an organizer for the four-month-long “Star Formation” program at KITP in fall 2007, and Crutcher visited for several weeks. The two had discussed their work in passing at various conferences. “Here,” said, Padoan, “we talked and talked, and we are finally on the same page.” That agreement, he said, “would not have happened if we went to a dozen more conferences,” because the two scientists needed to be able to engage in sustained discussion. The opportunity for sustained discussion is what the KITP affords visiting scientists.

Often, scientists, especially when they disagree about significant issues, said Padoan, “need much more time than at a conference or at a shorter workshop to really reach an agreement, to really nail certain problems down completely. If we don’t spend enough time communicating on a single issue, we end up wasting time because we have to come back to the same problem. Here, we can talk today and talk again tomorrow and the next day until we completely understand each other and know we are speaking the same language.”

People, even scientists, sometimes prefer not to hear objections because they have a vested interest in a certain result or theory. But at KITP, said Padoan, people have the opportunity to question, confront, and argue with each other. A discussion scheduled for 30 minutes can take 90 because content can override the exigencies of schedule, as content generally cannot in a conference setting.

“I have been grilled here on one of my papers for three hours,” said Padoan. “They were after me like jackals, but it was fun; it was great! That is how science is done.”


KITP Newsletter, Spring 2008