Strings can be very attractive to cats and, occasionally, to the former heads of multinational consulting firms.

Fred Gluck, the former head of McKinsey & Co., recently donated $1 million to UCSB’s Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics to endow a chair. The chair, designated to be held by the institute’s director, was assumed by David Gross, a string theorist and co-discoverer of the mechanics of strong force, one of the four fundamental forces of nature.

A ceremony was held over Winter Break to commemorate the occasion and included actual chairs.

“The university provided the donor with a chair, provided me with a chair – there were lots of chair jokes. I gave a lecture, which is on the Web, and then we had a nice reception. It was a very nice occasion,” Gross said. “And now I have a chair. A comfortable chair.”

Gross was previously located at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies, where he held two endowed chairs before coming to UCSB to head the Institute for Theoretical Physics. This chair is still unique, Gross said.

“The others were founded years ago. So there was a sort of anonymous distance,” Gross said. “This was more immediate. … First of all, I know the donor. He’s helped us a lot.”

Gluck came to Santa Barbara at the same time that Gross arrived to helm the ITP. The two met initially at a College of Engineering reception, held by Dean Matthew Tirrell in 2000. Gluck, originally trained as an engineer, had a strong background in mathematics and was immediately fascinated by Gross’ research in the field of string theory.

String theory, sometimes known as M-theory, is the latest attempt by physicists to develop a unified field theory – a single equation that unifies the four basic forces of nature: the strong force, the weak force, the electromagnetic force and the gravitational force. Together, these four forces explain the mechanical workings of the universe.

The strong force is responsible for binding together tiny particles called quarks to form neutrons and protons, which together make up the nuclei of atoms. The weak force is responsible for radioactive or beta decay. Most people are more familiar with the electromagnetic force, which is responsible for physical interactions in the everyday world (i.e., hitting a baseball with a bat), and the gravitational force, which holds the Earth in orbit about the sun.

The basic idea behind string theory is that particles are not merely points in space but tiny loops in strings, which exist in as many as 11 different dimensions. Some of these dimensions are stable at a macroscopic level, allowing you to move up, down, sideways and back. Others are only manifested over very small distances such as you might find within atoms. Under string theory, the four basic forces are actually one single force, which can take four different apparent forms based on the way a string is vibrating (i.e., its vibrational mode).

To truly understand string theory requires a degree in advanced mathematics or a related field. Gluck is off to a good start, Gross said.

“He’s got a background and an interest in science and is fascinated by string theory,” Gross said. “So we had some interesting conversations about that and he was a natural person for me to turn to and ask to help us.”

The ITP became the Kavli ITP a little over one year ago after Fred Kavli of the Kavlico Corp., donated $7.5 million to the institute – a donation made at the encouragement of Gluck. The ITP has, in recent years, increasingly sought private sources of funding. The highly regimented distribution of funds from government sources often prevents scientists from pursuing new lines of research in a timely fashion.

Scientists must wait as long as two years before an endowment is renewed and their new interests can be added to the ITP’s list of directives. Meanwhile, researchers at other universities may be publishing and gaining a head start. Private funds provide a flexible solution to this problem.

“We’re interested in trying to get more chairs,” Gross said. “My ultimate goal is to have a chair for every member [of the Kavli ITP]. That would be nice to have.”