At Jefferson Lab, It's a Waiting Game (Daily Press)

Dr. Pete Markowitz stands beside particle detectors in the shield hut at Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility recently. Markowitz is part of a multinational collaboration conducting experiments on kaon electroproduction.

At Jefferson Lab, It's a Waiting Game

Increased interest in the accelerator makes access a precious commodity

In 1993, Pete Markowitz had an idea on how to test an exotic form of matter that would take about two years to complete using the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility. Ten years later, the lab's backlog means he's barely halfway done.

Markowitz works with kaons, tiny particles about two-thirds the size of a proton. The first half of his work deals with how the components of the kaon are arranged, which could help scientists better understand the itsiest bits of the universe. The second half of his work, which he hopes to start in the fall, would deal with creating hyperons, rare particles believed to make up a third of the matter in some neutron stars.

Though he proposed his project in 1993, it was only approved in 1998.

"It's been very disappointing to think about it," Markowitz said. "I hadn't planned it to be a 10-year experience."

Some scientists would consider Markowitz lucky.

Stuck in a backlog that usually makes scientists wait about 3½ years, some researchers have been waiting since 1989 to use the facility. This year, researchers requested about 217 days worth of beam time in just one of the lab's three experimental halls; only 51 days were allocated.

But with nearly 1,000 researchers working on 134 experiments waiting to use the accelerator, the beam bottleneck is the kind of unfortunate situation officials said they can live with.

The backlog shows that there is a big interest in the lab, which helps in leveraging more funding from Congress, said Andrew Hutton, director of operations at the lab.

"It's like everyone coming to a traffic light wants to see a green," Hutton said. "The fact a lot of people are stopping at the traffic light means there's a lot of people who want to travel."

The center isn't likely to lose any researchers, though. The lab's equipment deals with energies that make it the only place such experiments can be done, Hutton said.

"Are people upset? Obviously," he said. "Are people staying away? Obviously not."

Still, the backlog is more than the two- to three-year wait the lab would like to see.

Completed in 1994, Jefferson Lab's accelerator revs up electrons to nearly the speed of light and smashes them into material such as hydrogen. The method allows scientists to delve into the inner workings of protons, and the lab's waiting list was just about filled before the first electron got up to cruising speed.

"The problem is it took a hell of a long time to build this thing, and by the time we started, we were overfull," Hutton said.

Since then, the lab has implemented a system to help decide which scientists get to use the facility. Every six months, the lab sends out requests for proposals from scientists about experiments.

The responses are examined by the Program Advisory Committee, a 13-person group composed of researchers from outside the lab. They make recommendations to the lab director, who eventually chooses which programs get the go-ahead and are placed on the waiting list.

Once they're in, though, scientists don't just hang out waiting their turn.

Markowitz, for example, is also an assistant professor at Florida International University. He spends half the year teaching there and the other half working at Jefferson Lab. At the Newport News lab, Markowitz does what most other researchers do, joining fellow experimenters to lend their expertise and learning how to use the machines as they await their eventual turn.

The center also has a review every three years, and experimenters who have been on the waiting list that long are re-evaluated by the advisory committee. About a third are rejected; another third are re-approved; and the last third usually just change their minds and cancel their experiments.

But the center has continued to attract about twice as many hopeful experimenters as it can accommodate.

Money also plays a part because the Department of Energy has continued to fund physics research at the lab at about $73 million per year, which means the beam can only run about 30 weeks each year. It was originally proposed to run 40 weeks.

Maintenance also reduces the amount of time the beam can run, with downtime for setting up experiments and fixing cranky pipes that feed very cold liquid into components. Last year, the beam ran for the least time ever, an estimated 28 weeks.

The shortened time means some researchers will continue to be upset, which Hutton said is kind of a good thing depending on one's perspective.

"Isn't it nice when you can talk about people who are upset because they can't work?"