A Coming-Out Party for a Particle Collider

                The New York Times, Sunday, January 21, 2001

                by Valerie Cotsalas


In a sea of hundreds of scientists Angelika Drees laughed and spoke
excitedly in German as she rushed to embrace Heinz Pernegger in a crowded
lecture hall. The two European physicists hadn't seen each other since Dr.
Pernegger left for Geneva last year.

The setting was a coffee break between seminars at last week's Quark
Matter 2001 conference at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
More than 700 physicists and graduate students from 35 countries converged
on Long Island to hear reports about last year's inaugural run of the
Relativistic Heavy lon Collider, the immense new particle collider at
Brookhaven National Laboratory. The machine, called RHIC, is the most
powerful machine of its kind.

"I like being at RHIC because it's the hottest thing going on line right
now," said Dr. Drees, a 36-year-old accelerator physicist who hails from
Germany but has been living on Long Island for the last three years. "You
do everything-you design, install, analyze data, publish. You can do
things yourself here. It's not so structured."

Like many of their nearly 1,000 colleagues working on the RHIC project,
Dr. Drees and Dr. Pernegger have also worked at the Swiss laboratory,
CERN, where scientists spent years trying to create a new state of matter
that is believed to have existed in the moments following the Big Bang,
the explosion that began the universe. Now that that experiment is over,
RHIC is the place to be.

"What's nice about Long Island n ow, for us, is that it suddenly had a big
influx of young people because of RHIC," said Dr. Pernegger, 34, an
Austrian who is working on CERN's new collider, which will reclaim the
title of world's most powerful after its opening, scheduled for 2005.
Meanwhile, he said he is available to advise on RHIC.

Christof Roland is another of the recent transplants from Switzerland to
Long Island. The 30-year-old experimental physicist got his doctorate
while working on the CERN accelerator, then was hired by the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology to work at B.N.L. on one of the RHIC detectors.

"It's quite exciting," he said during a break in the conference. "In our
field of science, this is where the action is."

The collider is the latest and biggest tool of an international group of
scientists who are trying to pry open the secrets of the early rnoments of
the universe. When it is running, RHIC smashes together bunches of
subatomic particles racing around its 2.4-mile underground tunnel in
opposite directions at nearly the speed of light, then sifts through the
resulting shower of debris for clues to the stuff of the early universe.

"We really are going someplace that nobody's been before," said Barbara
Jacak, an experimental physicist working on one of the detectors that
sweeps up the particle debris and painstakingly analyzes it with the help
of powerful computers.

RHIC's allure to young scientists is not only its power, but the chance to
get in on a new era of research from the very start.  Dr. Drees is an
accelerator physicist -- -one of those who helped design RHIC and make t
work. Her husband. Axel Drees, is also a RHIC physicist and former CERN
scientist. Dr. Drees convinced her husband to move to Long Island and work
at RHIC three years ago while they were both at CERN.

Getting the first particle collisions at RHIC last June, which paved the
way for the real experiments to begin, was "the most exciting moment," she

But though most scientists were enthusiastic about the new research at
RHIC, which is 10 times more powerful than the CERN machine, some discord
remained from a claim made last February by CERN scientists that a new
state of matter, an extremely hot and dense mixture called quark-gluon
plasma, was created during their accelerator run.

B.N.L. scientists, themselves seeking the discovery, heaped skepticism on
the claim, creating a rather hol and dense collision of minds.

The contest was still hovering at the big-science conference on the Island
last week and not without a fair amount of spin, especially during
receptions, when chardonnay and merlot from Long Island vineyards flowed

Apostolos Panagiotou, a physicist from the University of Athens working on
the CERN experiments, said CERN had seen definitive signs of "quark
matter," which he said is the same thing as quark-gluon plasma.

"But RHIC scientists should not feel badly about it," Dr. Panagiotou said.
"They will see new signs that we cannot see."

A RHIC physicist, Nu Xu, passed by just in time to hear Dr. Panagiotou's

"I don't buy it at all. It must be French propaganda," Dr. Xu said,
scribbling out a diagram on a piece of paper and presenting it to Dr.
Panagiotou as proof. "The CERN people say if you cannot model it, it must
be quark-gluon plasma.  I disagree."

Lecturers at the conference were not as bold in laying claim to or
refuting the CERN announcement.

"The issue is that this is a comingout party for RHIC," said William Zajc
(rhymes with kites), the leader of the experimental team on one of the
RHIC detectors, who added that RHIC scientists don't feel they have to
one-up the CERN results. "This is the major conference in our field in
which one traditionally assesses the value of the experiments and the
quality of their data. It's the first time the international community
gets a look at the results from RHIC."

Scientists could opt out of some lectures and take a tour of RHIC, which
sometimes resembled a Disney World shuttle ride. Buses circled the dirt
berm that looked like a gigantic gopher track covering the RHIC rtunnel.
The buses made stops at detector stations along the ring- big boxy
buildings housing immense machinery. One of the detectors, called Phenix,
weighs 3,000 tons and was splayed across the room in various pieces,
dwarfing the groups of physicists staring up from below.

"This is impressive," said Hans Gutbrod, a physicist and director of the
Subatech laboratory in France as he looked up at one of the pieces of the
detector. "This is the biggest we have built right now."

At the STAR detector stop, John Harris, the leader of that detector group,
was on hand to answer questions and greet visiting scientists.  Like most
of the RHIC physicists presenting their results, he hadn't slept much over
the previous two weeks.

"I am no longer considered young," the 50-year-old physicist said wryly.
"When I started here 10 years ago, I used to joke that I dyed my hair gray
to get more respect. I don't have to do that anymore."

Next door, in the STAR "counting house," where computers collect all the
information passed on from the detector, 31-year-old Jens Berger flashed a
picture on the computer screen that was the first sign that RHIC was
working and that years of planning and building were finally over.
Visitors leaned in to get a good view.

"Last summer we waited day after day for 16 hours at a time," Dr. Berger
said, "and finally, on the 12th of June at nine in the evening -- -I'll
never, ever forget it -- -we got the first collisions. Right now this is a
great place to be, right here. It's pretty exciting."


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