Probing the Quirks of Quarks

The Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility will be one of the most important places for nuclear physics research in the next decade. Rensselaer's involvement includes faculty, students, and alumni.

A century ago, physicists could make important new discoveries with equipment that was simple and inexpensive even for its day: glass tubes with the air pumped out, hot filaments, magnets, a nominal amount of electricity, hydrogen, and other gases. With such gear British scientist J.J. Thomson conducted experiments that led to his discovery of the electron in 1897.

If only today's physicists could use such handy, simple tools in their own quests to understand the nature of matter and energy. But the atomic particles and forces that are today's objects of study — gluons, mesons, neutrons, quarks, protons, and other quantum bits — don't yield their secrets easily, or inexpensively. Quarks in particular are the subject of intense research at present, and to learn about them physicists must rely on huge, complex, and costly particle accelerators like the new $700 million Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Va.

Rensselaer faculty and students have played pivotal roles in the Jefferson Lab, under Physics Professor Paul Stoler's inspiration and guidance. In fact, from its earliest days, Rensselaer has had extensive involvement, first in the late 1970s as a principal activist for its establishment, then as the designer and builder of a critical component, and now as a major research presence. Not only is the lab a powerful tool for Rensselaer researchers, it has provided students a unique opportunity to gain real-world experience with some of the most advanced equipment in the world.

Beaming: Rensselaer's Jefferson team includes (l-r) Physics Professor Paul Stoler, graduate student Angela Biselli, Associate Professor of Physics Jim Napolitano '77, and graduate student Mike Klusman.