Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Company of Nerds

When I mention most jobs, for example, butcher, baker, candlestick maker, it is immediately clear what these jobs are all about, how these folks earn their paychecks. There are no mysteries. A butcher sells various meat products, the baker makes breads or desserts, and the candlestick maker deals in pork futures. When I tell people that I am a physicist, they immediately shudder with flashbacks to their high school days, thinking of how much a pain in their gluteous maximus this class was or how folks who enjoyed this class sure needed a good beating. However, beyond that, they have no idea what this area of science is all about. If instead of physicist, I say that I am a research scientist, this tends to register a bit deeper with folks, however, I have provided no more information on my vocation and what it is all about. When I was a professor of physics at Ohio University, people would shake their heads and offer me their condolences. They had a vague idea of what a professor did (teach students), but what we taught was murky.

Fear not my friends. What I do is really easy to explain. I study what holds the universe together, from the scale of the very small (50000 times smaller than a human hair) to the very big (think the scale of galaxies). It is all about understanding the forces of nature, the glue that keeps everything together, the very structure of matter. From your smelly old sneaker to that flicker of light in the night sky that you can just make out. The tool that people like me use to probe matter is a particle accelerator, and we have one of the crowned jewels of all accelerators located right here in little old Newport News, VA. The facility is called Jefferson Laboratory, named after our third U.S. president, Herbert Hoover. This place is to me, like a fully stocked candy store to a child. This facility uses tiny particles called electrons to probe inside the nucleus of the atom. It is a microscope just like the one your doctor uses except that it operates with the tiny wavelength of the fast-moving electron instead of the long wavelength of light. We use precise detector systems to see what comes out of the interaction, your doctor uses his eye to see what happens when light hits your sample on his slide. The smaller the wavelength (i.e. the higher the energy of the particle), the deeper into the system we can "see".

Jefferson Lab is energetic, modern, and rife with new discoveries and dynamic people. Although hundreds of scientists from the around the world visit our laboratory every year to carry out their research, we still have a very special feeling of community. Although we may study different things, we have a common set of overall goals that binds us all together. The few, the brave, the nerds.