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Theoretical Physics Center celebrates opening of new space

Recently renovated Barus building offers new space for collaboration in physics

The Brown Theoretical Physics Center celebrated its move into the recently-renovated Barus Building with an opening reception attended by students, faculty and staff Monday.

The renovation, which cost just under $1.2 million, added over 8,000 square feet of space for the year-old center.

The building, which formerly housed the Education department, was expanded and revamped over the summer to suit the needs of the BTPC, which moved into the space in September. The Education department moved to 164 Angell Street last semester, The Herald previously reported.

The BTPC is comprised of faculty, post-docs, students and visitors researching high-energy physics, astrophysics and condensed matter physics. According to the center’s website, the BTPC aims to increase collaboration among theorists and “supports interdisciplinary cross-departmental research with other STEM disciplines.”

Before the Barus Building reopened at the beginning of this semester, researchers working for the BTPC were housed in Barus and Holley alongside the rest of the Physics department. The center “is designed to bring synergy to our work so that we have more contact with each other to think about new ideas,” said Brad Marston, professor of physics and associate director of the center.

In addition to offering a dedicated space for the center, the renovation of the Barus Building helped alleviate space constraints in Barus and Holley. “We used to be completely jammed for space with the expansion of the engineering school, so we didn’t have any place to put visitors who would be coming to work with us,” Marston said. “Now we have some space.”

The ground floor of the Barus Building is now a common area meant to encourage physics students and faculty to collaborate, including breakout rooms for smaller group work. Upstairs, the building contains faculty offices and conference rooms.

“I’m particularly proud of the front of this building, which we call the ‘Physics Forum,’” said Jim Gates, professor of physics and director of the BTPC. “This is a place that the center does not own; rather, it’s for the use of everyone in the Physics department. … We had a student in here over the weekend for a physics conference who said that this feels like a magical place, and that’s exactly what I wanted.”

The center’s faculty are excited about the interdisciplinary opportunities that the new space will enable. “I’m hoping that the building will lead to new discoveries and new collaborations between groups, both in physics and in other physical science departments,” Marston said. “For example, I have some collaborations with people in Chemistry and (the Department of Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Sciences). So now being physically closer to them, it’s easier to go meet with them or for them to come over here.”

The team-oriented nature of physics work is aided by the new collaborative spaces, said Professor of Physics Meenakshi Narain. “Most of the way you do physics ­— whether it’s experimental or theoretical physics —­ is by bouncing off ideas with each other,” she said. “So having a center like this where you create those team-building discussions and bring people from everywhere (to collaborate) … is great.”

Although the Education department was the most recent occupant of the building before the BTPC, the Barus Building was once an important facility of the Physics department. Along with the former Wilson Hall, now called Friedman Hall, the Barus Building was the site of early experiments on electron diffraction and cathode tubes, Marston said. “This is kind of a return for us,” he added. Carl Barus, the namesake of the building, “was a physicist who was the fourth president of the American Physical Society.”

Ultimately, Gates sees the Barus Building as an invaluable tool for furthering inter- and intra-departmental dialogue about physics at Brown. “This place here is basically my vision based on what I’ve seen at places such as the Googleplex and other places where innovation goes on,” he said. “Our university is really stepping up to the plate so that we have an opportunity at Brown to welcome students into this world and to contribute to some of the developments.”



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