A unified theory
The Physics Research Center will unite theorists and experimentalists for the first time in half a century.
In 1961 University of Chicago faculty members conducting space exploration research were spread across and off campus. Physicist John Simpson—a pioneer who flew the first cosmic-ray experiments to Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn—proposed a building to unite them: the Laboratory for Astrophysics and Space Research. In an August 1962 meeting with LASR’s architecture firm, Simpson explained that the building would be a departure from the classic physics laboratory. “The physicist must be around but not on top of the applied physicists,” he said, suggesting that blackboards be located in strategic points to facilitate collaboration during casual meetings. Completed in 1965 at 933 East 56th Street, LASR featured a foundation and roof designed with future expansion in mind. Fifty years and 15 Nobel Prizes in Physics later, the University is fulfilling Simpson’s vision, adding two floors and undertaking extensive internal renovations to create the University’s new Physics Research Center. The building, to be completed in summer 2017, will offer research space for advanced detectors and neutrino, accelerator, and gravitational wave physics. Simpson’s faith in the casual interchange of ideas endures. With offices and laboratories for the Enrico Fermi Institute and the Kadanoff Center for Theoretical Physics, the Physics Research Center will unite theoretical and experimental physicists under the same roof. Inquiry asked a theorist (associate professor LianTao Wang) and an experimentalist (assistant professor David Schmitz) how the new facility will affect physics research.
What type of physics do you study?LW: I work on theoretical high-energy physics, on topics including the properties of the Higgs boson, dark matter in the universe and its signal, and new physics at the Terascale—named for the teravolts (1012 volts) of particle accelerator energy produced at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. My research includes theoretical calculation and derivation, as well as interacting with experimental groups. DS: Our group studies the physics of neutrinos—the lowest mass but most abundant of the fundamental matter particles that we know. They are electrically neutral and only interact through the so-called weak nuclear force and gravity, which makes them challenging to study but also makes them a unique and exciting probe of a range of phenomena in the universe. Our group is interested in neutrino oscillations, the process by which they transform between different “flavors.” We are trying to answer whether neutrinos could explain why matter came to dominate over antimatter in the early universe instead of just annihilating each other into a structureless sea of photons. And we are searching for new types of particles called sterile neutrinos, which interact with matter only through gravity.
How might collaboration between a theorist and an experimentalist benefit your research?LW: A key ingredient of my work is taking inspiration from data, to develop new ideas that can be tested by experimentation and new strategies to look for interesting signals. This cannot happen without active interaction with my experimental colleagues. DS: In particle physics we are in an exploratory period, trying to figure out where the cracks are in our model of how the universe works. It’s critical that experimentalists, who develop the methods to search for new phenomena, and theorists, who provide guidance on where they could or could not be hiding, work together closely. The theory community can also provide important input on dealing with certain systematic uncertainties that impact experiments, so regular communication is vital.
How will the Physics Research Center support research in ways that current facilities haven’t?LW: The renovation of LASR promotes the interaction between experimentalists and theorists as well as between different areas of theoretical physics, which is crucial to catalyze progress. More than just nice new offices and dining areas, the Physics Research Center will offer faculty, students, and staff a better chance to run into each other—motivating the exchange of ideas and inviting discussions. This is a distinct feature of many leading institutions. I cannot remember how many times new ideas were born from frequent and spontaneous interactions among colleagues in such spaces. DS: The renovated facility will be a hub for particle physics research on campus and the Chicagoland area. State-of-the-art detector development will take place across the hall from regular seminars on cutting-edge theoretical ideas. Graduate students and postdocs researching in different fields and working in both experiment and theory will work in close proximity, facilitating more serendipitous exchange of ideas in addition to the more formal channels. This is important to their education as well as to the progress of our research.
What physics mystery, whether in your field or in another, do you most want to see solved during your lifetime?LW: The mechanism of the electroweak symmetry breaking and how it’s connected to other deep questions, such as gravity. Also the nature of dark matter. DS: If I have to pick just one mystery, then I’d say detecting some form of dark matter and perhaps opening the door on a whole “dark sector” of matter. The Standard Model of Particle Physics is such a triumph, yet it only tells us about 5 percent of the content of the universe.