March 17, 2006 - The Ritz-Carlton hummed like the inside of an atom Thursday night as 20 of the world's top physicists - including three Nobel Prize winners - opened an informal symposium to debate the makeup and origins of the universe.
The private meetings, dubbed "Confronting Gravity: A workshop to explore fundamental questions in physics and cosmology," bring some of physics' top minds to St. Thomas to discuss some of the science's most puzzling questions, such as the existence of black holes and alternate dimensions.
Nobel prize winners Gerardus't Hooft, David Gross and Frank Wilczek, and experimental and theoretical physics pioneer Stephen Hawking, attended an informal reception at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Thursday night.
Wilczek, who with Gross and H. David Politzer won the 2004 Nobel Prize in physics for exploring of the force that binds particles inside the atomic nucleus, said it was rare to have so many top minds at a relatively small physics conference.
"This is a remarkable group," he said.
Gross said it was important for physicists at the top level to get together, not only to discuss new theories, but to keep each other sane.
"It's a little scary to be out there probing the unknown and you need to have people around to say, 'No, you're not crazy,'" Gross said. "This is special."
The driving force behind the conference, New York and Virgin Islands money manager Jeffrey Epstein, said he pooled the group on St. Thomas with hopes that the relaxed setting would free the physicists' minds to explore one of the 20th century's last unanswered physics questions: What is gravity.
"They say Newton discovered it but no one knows what it is," said Epstein, whose J. Epstein Virgin Islands Foundation helped finance the six-day conference.
Delegates from the University of the Virgin Islands and Antilles School also attended the reception, where a few free spirited physicists braved the dance floor.
"There is no agenda except fun and physics, and that's fun with a capital 'F,'" Epstein said.
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