Sunday, February 20, 2011

Social media updates

If you're on facebook, you can follow me here, support the HRIBF here, and on twitter, #HRIBF @supporthribf - get connected and get involved! Don't let politicians cut funding to science, education, and social support programs (Americorp, LEAP, etc)!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Holifield needs your help

Below is the text of a letter in support of the continued operation of the Holifield Radioactive Ion Beam Facility at Oak Ridge National Lab. It currently has a dozen signatures attached to it, with more being added daily. If you agree with the letter, consider contacting your representatives and asking them to grant us a fair review.

It would be a great tragedy to see the operating budget for the Holifield Radioactive Ion Beam Facility (HRIBF) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory cut, as has been proposed by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu's recent budget announcement [1]. The news came as a shock to all of us in the nuclear physics community, especially considering the tremendous contributions to science that the facility continues to provide.

The HRIBF enjoys a lengthy and consistent publication record, including a recent Nature paper on doubly-magic tin-132, which was honored with an Editor's Summary and a "News and Views" article [2], and even appeared as a cover story in the August 2010 Physics Today issue. In fact, this work won the collaborators an ORNL Laboratory Director's Award in late 2010. Recent successes at the HRIBF have garnered millions of dollars in project grants and several new staff researcher hires, adding to the shock at Chu's announcement.

In addition to an ongoing, strong science program, the HRIBF draws visiting nuclear physicists from around the globe as one of the top ISOL (isotope separation on-line) facilities worldwide (and the only one in the US that still operates as a users facility). No other facility can create beams of heavy r-process nuclei at the energies, intensities and purities of which the HRIBF alone is capable. In fact, the facility still boasts the world's largest electrostatic tandem accelerator. The unique and unmatched combination of a large range of available radioactive ion beams with the high quality of a tandem beam has made the HRIBF a world-renowned laboratory for nuclear physics studies [3]. The science program at the HRIBF is also the basis for many external DOE grants, providing support to a multitude of universities across the nation, both individually and in consortium as Centers of Excellence.

While the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB), also funded by the DOE and operated by Michigan State University, will in the future provide a new national user facility for cutting-edge nuclear science, it will cost approximately $600 million and take about a decade to design and build. HRIBF would play a crucial role in the intervening years by providing rare isotope beams for the user community until, and even after, the completion of FRIB. With the first beams at FRIB being based on an in-beam fragmentation technique (such as is used at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory), HRIBF would still provide the only US capability for studying the properties of rare isotopes using ISOL techniques [4].

Finally, and perhaps most disappointing, is the fact that the HRIBF users and staff were not given the opportunity to provide input toward the decision. To shut down a facility without granting the benefit of a full, open and transparent review is unsettling to say the least. We decide whether a paper is worthy to be published based on a peer review of its scientific merit; we can only ask that the government would extend the same favor to a world-renowned facility before taking away their entire operating budget. Funding cuts are inevitable in the current financial climate, and we agree that the government should work to reduce wasteful and frivolous spending, but it is impossible to do so without first properly identifying, based on an impartial and democratic review, what spending is wasteful. With the potential loss of the Holifield Radioactive Ion Beam Facility under the current circumstances, the entire scientific community has reason for concern.

[2] Jones, K., Adekola, A., Bardayan, D., Blackmon, J., Chae, K., Chipps, K., Cizewski, J., Erikson, L., Harlin, C., Hatarik, R., Kapler, R., Kozub, R., Liang, J., Livesay, R., Ma, Z., Moazen, B., Nesaraja, C., Nunes, F., Pain, S., Patterson, N., Shapira, D., Shriner, J., Smith, M., Swan, T., & Thomas, J. (2010). The magic nature of 132Sn explored through the single-particle states of 133Sn Nature, 465 (7297), 454-457 DOI: 10.1038/nature09048
[3] cf. Beene, J., Bardayan, D., Galindo Uribarri, A., Gross, C., Jones, K., Liang, J., Nazarewicz, W., Stracener, D., Tatum, B., & Varner, R. (2011). ISOL science at the Holifield Radioactive Ion Beam Facility Journal of Physics G: Nuclear and Particle Physics, 38 (2) DOI: 10.1088/0954-3899/38/2/024002

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Save US science research and education

Ok, folks, consider this me activating the phone tree.
Don't let US science research and education be set back decades by irresponsible budget cuts. Contact your member of Congress! A free form to do so may be found here. Science drives the innovation of our country, the education of our public, and provides for the betterment of our lives.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

"Winning the Future" - by losing it?

Hot on the heels of today's announcement, I feel as though I must speak. It is this note, almost in passing, that cuts to the quick:
The FY 2012 budget request closes the Holifield Radioactive Ion Beam Facility at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which will save $10.3 million.
$10.3 million dollars may seem like a lot, and to us, it is. It's our operating budget. But to the Department of Energy, it's hardly a line item. One only has to look at the previous item in Stephen Chu's blog post to reckon as much: cutting the credits and deductions currently being given to the oil and gas industry will save nearly $4 billion next year alone. They'll save billions of dollars, and yet are still going to push to close the HRIBF for a $10 million pittance?
The salt in the wound is that the cut would come, if you will, "unsupported." Whenever a facility suffers a funding cut or is shut down, it is after a lengthy ranking and peer review process. The peer review process ensures that facilities aren't shut down "out of the blue" (as is the case now), but because they have failed to produce good, and consistent, science. We've been given no such chance. We publish myriads of papers, including Physical Review Letters and even in Nature (here's a reminder). We were just awarded Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Directors Award (partway down this page). We present talk after talk at conference after conference. We are the only facility in the US that can produce high energy, high intensity beams of r-process nuclei like tin and tellurium, one of the only facilities that produces beams using the ISOL technique (the only one in the US that operates as a user facility), and we have the largest (25 million volts) tandem in the world.
This budget cut simply cannot stand. $10.3 million dollars in savings is not enough to justify setting back the US involvement in basic nuclear physics research by years, if not decades. Something must be done. Contact your Senators and Congressional delegates. Contact Stephen Chu and the DOE. But contact someone.
If you believe me at all, if you have caught any glimpse of what I've tried so hard to convey - the importance, and the wonder, of science - then please, act. I can ask no more. But I can also ask no less. Our future depends on it.

Friday, February 4, 2011

A thought on physics

Often, we physicists consider ourselves at the peak of the scientific fields - it's a well-known sentiment:

But I'm beginning to believe the line is too blurred to argue that the distinction still exists where it once did. Bear with me.
About sixty years ago, when nuclear physics was still a burgeoning field of study, Fred Hoyle (not yet Sir Fred Hoyle) did pioneering theoretical work to show that carbon-12, essentially the basis of all life, needed to have a special "trick" of nuclear structure called a resonance in order to exist as copiously as it does throughout the known universe. By looking at the amount of carbon in the universe and accounting for the temperature of typical stars, he worked out that carbon-12 had to have a resonance of a very specific strength and energy - and years later, that exact resonance was found. Hoyle had made (among many other successes) a tremendous and dramatic contribution to the infant field of nuclear astrophysics (and, by proxy, cosmology); the resonance has since been famously known as the "Hoyle state."
Today, research in nuclear astrophysics continues, but we've come to a point of diminishing returns. We know generally what to expect now - surprises like the Hoyle state just don't arise any longer - and our work has boiled down to measuring cross sections to greater and greater precision and accuracy. Since there are no more Hoyle states to anticipate, we instead anticipate having a bit more beam intensity for our experiments or a bit less background noise. We build better detectors and better facilities to measure the reactions to 20%, 10%, 5%... and while this is important, I'm beginning to believe it's simply another form of stamp collecting.
Those same incredible surprises still exist - in the study of string theory (superstring theory) and quantum field theory (while I acknowledge that other fields, such as neurobiology, are also basking in the glow of their recent growth, I'm limiting my argument to fields within physics). These are the topics all of the popular science books cover, these are where the brightest of the bright go to strive for the next great discovery*. The cutting edge of physics lies at the heart of quantum field fluctuations and supersymmetry.
So where does that leave the rest of us who claim to be physicists? Can we really say that what we do, the measuring of a certain reaction to smaller and smaller uncertainty, is so different from an engineer whose job is to test hard drives to withstand greater and greater forces, or a technician who tweaks an MRI machine to get better and better resolution? Have we ceased to really do physics, and are now just glorified bean counters, relegated by virtue of our aging field to the category of "applied science"? Or can we still truly claim to be physicists, even if we no longer work at the bleeding edge of physics? Perhaps in the end it's all just a matter of semantics, and it doesn't really mean anything. But perhaps it does.

*oh boy... don't tell my string theorist friend I said that!