Author: Richard Jones

Professor Nora Berrah Elected to National Academy of Sciences

Sarah Al-Arshani, UConn Today, May 3, 2024

Norah Berrah, professor of physics, standing in front of science equipment in her lab.
Nora Berrah, professor of physics, in her lab at the Gant Complex on May 2, 2024. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

UConn physics professor Nora Berrah has been elected as a member of the National Academy of Science (NAS), becoming the fifth member from the UConn community to join the selective national society. 

The Society was established in 1863 by an Act of Congress and signed into law by former President Abraham Lincoln as a private, nongovernmental institution.  

Members are elected “in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research,” and the academy serves as an advisory board for the nation on issues relating to science and technology.  

As a member of NAS, Berrah joins professor of economics Kathy Segerson, Dr. Cato Laurencin, Chief Executive Officer of The Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering at UConn Health; Laurinda Jaffe, department chair and professor of cell biology at UConn Health; Dr. Se-Jin Lee, Presidential Distinguished Professor in the Department of Genetics and Genome Sciences at UConn Health; Mary Jane Osborn, professor of microbiology who died in 2019; and Henry N. Andrews, professor of botany who died in 2002.

“Membership in the NAS is one of the highest honors that can be given to a scientist,” says Ofer Harel, Interim Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “It is a recognition by peers and the academy of outstanding research achievements, and Nora absolutely falls into that category.” 

Current academy members must nominate and vote for new members to join the academy, with no more than 120 members being elected each year. 

“It’s just an unbelievably great honor,” says Berrah. “I feel very grateful for all the National Academy members who voted for me and for being elected.” 

Berrah, the former department head of physics from 2014 to 2018, was elected in recognition of her research that focuses on ultrafast physical and chemical processes in quantum systems. 

Berrah’s research has wide ranging impact

In her lab on campus, as well as at the Linac Coherent Light Source Free Electron Laser at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Stanford, California, Berrah conducts “time resolved, photo-induced experiments to understand ultrafast fundamental mechanisms such as charge transfer, energy transfer, and proton transfer.” 

The experiments measure super-fast reactions up to the femtosecond, or one quadrillionth of a second, as well as to the attosecond, or one quintillionth of a second which has important impacts on other scientific fields.  

“We want to understand these processes, and ultimately we want to control them to achieve desired outcomes,” says Berrah. “I and my research group measure manifestations of quantum mechanics — using ultrafast lasers at the femtosecond and attosecond timescale to test fundamentals of quantum mechanics. Our research has a broad impact on chemistry, biology, material science, and environmental science.”  

Berrah was also previously elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She earned a Davisson-Germer award from the American Physical Society and is a fellow of the American Physical Society. 

 She has also been an advocate for increasing the participation and retention of women in physics.  

 “I realized as an undergraduate student that there were just very few women, whether they’re undergraduate or graduate students, and it doesn’t make sense to me, because we all have a brain, and if we have an interest in physics, then we should pursue it,” says Berrah. “It’s a man-dominated field. And way back, women were not welcomed in physics.” 

Over the course of her career, Berrah has worked to help women feel less isolated in the field, including serving as the chair of APS’ Committee on the Status of Women in Physics. 

Berrah is currently chairing a committee in the physics department to organize a conference for undergraduate women and gender minorities in physics, that she says will occur January 24-26, 2025. She says it is an opportunity to help undergraduate women network and peer mentor with each other, so they don’t feel isolated, since they are often the only women in their classrooms.  

 The conference is a chance for women to learn together and become comfortable in the field, Berrah says.  

 “It’s important to mentor the next generation of women physicists and increase significantly their number,” says Berrah. 

UConn’s Old Planetarium Gets a New Upgrade

After an extensive collaborative effort and restoration process by UConn faculty, facilities staff, and students, Connecticut’s oldest planetarium will soon be back in action.

Once used for education and outreach for UConn faculty, students, and community members, the planetarium fell into disuse in the last several years, but Department of Physics Assistant Professor-in-Residence Matt Guthrie has been working hard with skilled facilities staff, including CLAS Facilities Team Leader Brett DeMarchi, to bring this piece of UConn history back into working order.

The planetarium was built in 1954 and has served since as a hub for sharing astronomical information with UConn and surrounding communities. The late Professor Cynthia Peterson was the planetarium’s curator for many years; it was her favorite place on campus, and she regularly shared her enthusiasm for astronomy by hosting events there.

The original A1 Spitz Star and Planet Projector, used for over 50 years for teaching others about the wonders of the universe, is now on display in the Gant Science Complex along with a plaque in dedication to the planetarium’s long-time curator, Professor Cynthia Peterson.
The original A1 Spitz Star and Planet Projector, used for over 50 years for teaching others about the wonders of the universe, is now on display in the Gant Science Complex along with a plaque in dedication to the planetarium’s long-time curator, Professor Cynthia Peterson. (Contributed photo)

In 2022, when Guthrie first toured the facility with Physics Department Academic Assistant Dave Perry, they were not sure what they would find and felt it was a shame the facility had fallen into disrepair. With encouragement from fellow physics faculty members Jon Trump and then Department Head Professor Barry Wells, Guthrie decided to take the project on, and together with Perry, DeMarchi, and others, they have been slowly but surely bringing the venerable planetarium back into campaigning shape.

“When I first toured the facility, it was still my first year at UConn full-time and I was looking for a project to dedicate all my free time to,” Guthrie says. “From the start, as I was doing research about it and learning more about Cynthia, I felt a sense of responsibility that if I was going to fill at least part of the hole that was left after she retired, we needed the proper recognition for everything that she had done, especially with the planetarium.”

The first time DeMarchi walked into the dome, he says it was like stepping back in time:

“It was almost pitch black and the antique projector was covered in dust — a unique piece of history to marvel at from a time when technology was much simpler!”

DeMarchi says a previous project study with a larger scope had a budget that was unfeasible, but he had some ideas to help keep the costs down while still freshening up the facility without major renovations to the existing structure. A new proposal was submitted to CLAS, accepted, and with funding, the project moved ahead.

Guthrie wanted to be sure the history of the planetarium was preserved, so, in the process of clearing out the facility to make way for new equipment, the team kept whatever they could for posterity, including the original A1 Spitz star and planet projector.

“We put the old projector on display in the physics department to make sure that we are not rewriting the history of the planetarium. That has been the guiding light for how I approach this project. We did buy a new projector, but we’re not changing the internal structure of the building,” says Guthrie.

Shortly after starting this project, Guthrie also started working on the UConn Observatory and both projects have kept him very busy, but he says he is glad to be able to dedicate the time to get these resources back up and running for the department and community.

Guthrie also has student help, including Danya Alboslani (CLAS) ’24 who has helped with both renovation processes.

Alboslani first got involved as a sophomore wanting to learn more about the planetarium and observatory that no one seemed to have details about,

“I wanted to get more information about the planetarium on campus. UConn is a great school with astronomy professors who do amazing work, so if we have a planetarium and an alleged observatory, why don’t we use them?”

Alboslani connected with Guthrie and says working with him on the restoration projects has been amazing,

“Ever since I first contacted him, he’s made me feel very involved in the entire process. Professor Guthrie went out of his way to keep me updated on everything. I helped to write the memorial plaque about Professor Peterson — also a woman in STEM and UConn’s first women physics professor.”

Sealing up the dome and making the facility waterproof once again took a lot of effort, says DiMarchi. Thanks to the extensive collaborative efforts with UConn Facilities Operations, the planetarium is almost ready for action again.
Sealing up the dome and making the facility waterproof once again took a lot of effort, says DiMarchi. Thanks to the extensive collaborative efforts with UConn Facilities Operations, the planetarium is almost ready for action again. (Contributed photo)

A tricky issue was the planetarium’s 16-foot dome, which had to be resealed, but once that was resolved, Guthrie said the interior work could go ahead. Though it has been a slow process, Guthrie says the end is in sight. The internal painting was completed in January and the external painting will be done as soon as the weather warms up.

DeMarchi says the team is very appreciative of the extensive collaborative efforts from UConn Facilities Operations.

“Every Facilities Shop Supervisor that I contacted was on board to assist. Special thanks to Nate Bedard of Interior Renewals for his help with project coordination and flooring. Chris Gisleson and his team put a lot of effort into sealing the exterior of the dome. Jon Cooke researched the correct reflective paint needed for the interior of the dome and his team painted the structure. Jennifer Peshka provided testing and compliance guidance throughout. CLAS Shared Services student workers Cole Shillington (CLAS) ‘24 and Alex Gervais (CAHNR) ‘24 were a big help with various tasks that came up.”

Though they don’t have a firm launch date yet, Guthrie hopes they will be up and running by summertime. The team plans to install carpeting and purchase new chairs soon. Guthrie says they removed the old projector platform, which was about six feet in diameter, and Perry and Senior Machine Shop Engineer Machinist Ray Celmer are working to make a sturdy stand that will have a small 18-inch footprint which will allow for more flexibility and accessibility in the space.

“Newer planetariums are structuring their seating charts as if there is a front of the building, and that’s where they project the main action of the show, where other things can happen around you,” Guthrie says. “We have the possibility of moving around to make it so that there is a front of the room. That depends on what we want to do and how the building evolves to meet our needs. I wanted to leave that possibility open.”

When deciding on what new projector to order, Guthrie says he chose a company that specializes in portable planetarium projectors, because other than being the oldest planetarium in the state, this is likely the state’s smallest permanent planetarium.

The planetarium’s new projector comes equipped with around 100,000 premade shows and makes it easy for users to design their own shows, so physics students and faculty can share their research and produce educational content for classes or outreach events.
The planetarium’s new projector comes equipped with around 100,000 premade shows and makes it easy for users to design their own shows, so physics students and faculty can share their research and produce educational content for classes or outreach events. (Contributed photo)

“I went with this projector model because it’s perfect for the size of our dome. The new projector gives users access to around 100,000 pre-made shows, and a bonus is the software is easy to learn so users can write their own planetarium shows. What I’m hoping is that interested astronomy students will be able to lead outreach events with shows they have designed themselves and if they want to get involved it will be lower stress to learn how to use the projector within this cool piece of UConn history.”

Physics Ph.D. student Kelcey Davis is eager for the facility to open and says the astrophysics graduate students and faculty are all very passionate about what they do and are excited this project will provide the opportunity to engage with the public.

“I saw the projector for the first time just a few days ago and have driven it once. It’s operated by a video game controller, so it helps to be a nerd!” says Davis.

Davis works with the James Webb Space Telescope and hopes to develop shows that break down the big discoveries the telescope has made since first light and make them digestible to a broader audience.

“I’m excited to showcase some of the research I and others in the department are doing. NASA has come out with some cool visuals, and I’d love to share them. A great example is the flight to ‘Maisie’s galaxy,’ the most distant galaxy in the Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science Survey (CEERS), which I work on. The light from this galaxy traveled 13.4 billion light years to reach us.”

Guthrie also has ideas for shows: for example, a simulated rocket launch. The projector can show the flight through clouds and the atmosphere and once the sound system is installed, viewers can feel what it’s like to blast off. Guthrie says he is planning to hold at least one show per week once everything is up and running, as long as the demand is there.

“What I once thought I wouldn’t be able to see before I graduate is now slowly becoming a reality,” says Alboslani. “With Professor Guthrie leading the restoration of the planetarium and observatory, I know that he will make an impact on the community and the university for years to come.”

Guthrie is excited for the future with both the observatory and the planetarium back in action.

“The observatory has incredible potential for completely changing the way that we do astrophysics research at UConn and the planetarium is completely different, but also super exciting. I can’t wait to see what this building is capable of.”

The project was made possible thanks to funding from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The Planetarium schedule will be updated with events once the facility is up and running. You can also keep up with events via Instagram.


A Team Effort is Giving New Life to a Classic Observatory

Elaina Hancock – UConn Communications

After nearly 20 years of being out of commission, UConn’s East Road Observatory is back up and running
After nearly 20 years of being out of commission, UConn’s East Road Observatory is back up and running. The observatory will be renamed in a ceremony on October 21st where the team that restored the facility will demonstrate its capabilities. (Contributed photo)

Professor Cynthia Peterson was the first woman on the UConn physics faculty, and over the course of her 49 years at the University, she was known for her enthusiasm and passion for teaching and outreach and was always generous with sharing her knowledge. She was also known for her pursuit of the installation of an observatory j

Less than two weeks after touring the inside of the observatory in January of 2023, the team, including Allen Hall pictured here, began taking apart the old telescope and started working on restoring the facility.
Less than two weeks after touring the inside of the observatory in January of 2023, the team, including Allen Hall (pictured), began taking apart the old telescope and started working on restoring the facility.

ust off campus in Storrs, and in 1970 she and machinist Richard Mindek built the East Road Observatory.

Sadly, after a few decades of use, the observatory eventually fell out of repair and was largely forgotten until recently. A team, including employees, students, researchers, an alum, and an award-winning telescope builder, have breathed new life into this important piece of research equipment and UConn history.

In the fall of 2022, Physics Assistant Professor-in-Residence Matthew Guthrie learned about the observatory and started to wonder about its history.

“When I learned that it was no longer in use, I asked around to see why and how we could get it up and running again. Getting it fixed up was not in my skillset, so I didn’t think too much more about it,” says Guthrie. “Then Allen Hall, a local award-winning telescope designer, emailed our department chair out of the blue in January. He wanted to donate a telescope that he built. We connected and I told him about the derelict observatory, about a week later we were taking it apart.”

Guthrie reflects that the facility was in rough shape, and Hall later admitted he thought it was a lost cause, but they stuck with it. Now, after months of repairs, troubleshooting, and cleaning out critters and junk, the observatory is back in action and will be formally renamed at a ceremony scheduled for Tuesday, October 24th where Guthrie says they plan to demonstrate its upgraded capabilities.

Guthrie says jumping straight into the restoration has been an amazing and collaborative learning experience.

“I’m learning as much as I can from him (Hall), and his mechanical and technical skills are exactly what we needed to get this place restored to its former glory, and given the work and upgrades we’ve already made, they’re even better than the original design.”

All the while, Guthrie has tried to find out as much as he can about the observatory’s history. For instance, there is also an additional cement pad and utility hookups that were not previously used, and there are hopes that the facility can be expanded in the future to include a classroom, says Guthrie.

An alum who worked in the dome as a student and has also helped with the restoration effort, Dennis Perlot ’82 (ENG), saw the logbook and remembered the last, ominous entry dating from 2009 which read: “Dome stuck, mount frozen.” Perlot says the now-lost logbook also contained entries about asteroids, comets, and other discoveries.

Here Guthrie is working on reassembling the telescope. He says, “My graduate and postdoc work was mostly theory-based, so being back in a place where I can literally get my hands dirty again makes me happy, and seeing the results of our labor has been rewarding.”
Here Guthrie is working on reassembling the telescope. He says, “My graduate and postdoc work was mostly theory-based, so being back in a place where I can literally get my hands dirty again makes me happy, and seeing the results of our labor has been rewarding.” (Contributed photo)

Other challenges have grown up around the observatory, says Guthrie, because when it was built, the site was likely in the middle of an empty field. Decades later, the field now hosts a patch of trees and agricultural research fields.

Guthrie says the agricultural research farm staff, including Farm Manager Travis Clark, has been very supportive in helping to remove some of the trees when they can. Though people working on the farm have wondered what the strange building was for a while, now it presents an opportunity for new collaborations. Guthrie says one plan is to plant a “moon garden” around the building with night-blooming flowers.

“Getting the facility back up and running has been an amazing and rewarding experience. This will be a force for good in the department and at the university,” says Guthrie. “Our department has big-shot astrophysicists who work on JWST and Hubble. They like their telescopes to be in space, but having a telescope here is a powerful thing.”

UConn researchers have access to a network of telescopes around the world but time on the scopes requires fees after submitting proposals justifying the need for research time on the scopes. Now, Guthrie says students and researchers can get some hands-on experience with an earth-bound scope right here in Storrs.

“There’s nothing more fun than going through the theory in class and then seeing what it looks like with your own eyes and making that connection. That’s one of my basic philosophies of being a teacher, you can do all the theory that you want, and you probably can be pretty good at it. But if you can’t apply it, and see what that theory does in real applications, there’s no point. Things like this observatory are great tools for that building perspective.”

The team repaired, cleaned, and upgraded the observatory and it is better than before.
The team repaired, cleaned, and upgraded the observatory and it is better than before.

Upgrades to the facility include GPS for tracking the stars, enabling different kinds of research the observatory was not capable of previously, and Guthrie hopes to set up the system so it can be controlled remotely.

“With tracking, the scope rotates just a little bit at a constant rate to track along with the motion of the stars and that lets us do real science because you must look at something for a long time to really study it. One of the things that we’re excited to do is exoplanet studies where you need to take a few hours of exposure to accurately measure how much light you’re getting from the star so that any variability in that light you can attribute to a planet passing between us and the star. Doing that requires accurate tracking.”

At sunset on October 24th, following the short opening and renaming ceremony, Guthrie says they will fire up the new 16-inch telescope for an exploration of deep sky objects, planets, and (if visibility allows), the Apollo 15 landing site.

Physics Celebrates 51’st Annual Ascent of Mount Monadnock

On October 14, 2023 40-50 members and friends of the UConn Physics department took part in the 51’st annual ascent up Mount Monadnock, near Jaffrey, New Hampshire. After the hike, the then-hungry hikers descended to the campground near Gilson Pond and enjoyed some well-earned refreshments, including burgers, hot dogs, and more sausages than anyone could eat. News of the group’s cheer “Let’s Go, Physics” from the summit is expected soon to be trending on youtube. Rumors are circulating that it may have been heard as far as Boston and Storrs.

UConn Physics annual climb of Mount Monadnock, taken October 14, 2023
UConn Physics Department members rest after ascent of Mount Monadnock near Jaffrey, NH 14-Oct-2023

Remembering Jeff Schweitzer, colleague and mentor

Jeff Schweitzer (second from right) shown together with PhD student Fridah Mokaya (second from left) following her PhD defense in May, 2018. Also shown standing beside Fridah are husband Jonathan and daughter Jenise, with faculty advisors Richard Jones (left) and Peter Schweitzer (right).

Jeff Schweitzer passed away unexpectedly last year on May 31, 2022 in his home in Ridgefield, CT. Jeff was a faculty member in the physics department for 25 years (1997-2022). Jeff earned his B.S. in Physics from the Carnegie Institute of Technology (1967), and his M.S. (1969) and Ph.D. (1972) in physics from the Purdue University conducting research in low-energy nuclear physics. After his postdoctoral research at the California Institute of Technology (1972–1974) he worked as scientific advisor at Schlumberger-Doll Research (1974–1996) where he employed his expertise in nuclear experimental techniques to applications in geology and developed several patents. Jeff served for 35 years on the editorial boards of the Journal of Nuclear Geophysics (1987-1993) and Applied Isotopes and Radiation (1993-2022). A skilled nuclear experimental physicist, Jeff applied his expertise to a wide variety of fields: from fundamental experimental nuclear physics, to astrophysics, to studies of the nanoscale kinetics in cement chemistry, to instrumentation development with applications in medical physics, forensic science, and planetary mission satellites and landers.

Jeff taught at the Waterbury campus for several years, and was a devoted mentor for his students. At UConn, he was the PhD advisor for Nada Jevtic (Phd 2003) who is now faculty at the Bloomsburg University, Tim Spillane (PhD 2008) who works now as data scientist at Hiya Inc, and James Zickefoose (PhD 2011) who is now Senior Research Scientist at Mirion Technologies, Inc. in Meriden, CT. Jeff was the mentor and co-advisor for many more PhD students including Fridah Mokaya who was Jeff’s most recent advisee. Jeff also mentored junior UConn faculty including Howard Winston and Peter Schweitzer (not related to Jeff despite the same last name).

Howard Winston recalls that Jeff went out of his way to help him during his early days at UConn. He was extraordinarily generous with his time explaining his teaching philosophy and sharing course materials. While doing so, Jeff was never overly didactic. He enjoyed talking about areas where his approaches could be customized or improved. Jeff loved to keep in touch to see how things were going. In common with others, Howard misses his warm smile and sage advice.

Fridah Mokaya recalls: “I will forever treasure this memory as it is a constant reminder of Jeff’s dedication as an advisor and mentor. Jeff greatly influenced the career path I took, I remember when I was not certain of what to do or which path to take post graduation, his words of wisdom and guidance enabled me Identify my strength and passion. He was not only an advisor and mentor but also a great friend, who would constantly call, text, email and visit to check on how everything was progressing. I will greatly miss his advice and words of wisdom.” The picture taken after Fridah’s PhD defense shows Jeff Schweitzer (second from the right) together with Fridah, her husband and daughter (middle), Richard Jones (left, main advisor) and Peter Schweitzer (right, associate advisor).

More information about Jeff can be found in the news article of the Institute of Materials Science, in Jeff’s obituary and in the article in the journal Applied Radiation and Isotopes. Many of Jeff’s articles and scientific contributions can be found on the Research Gate website.

Physics Prof. Tom Blum recognized for Research Excellence

Prof. Thomas Blum is one of two faculty to receive the Research Excellence award from the University of Connecticut in 2022.  Tom came to UConn in 2004 and is a professor and associate department head for undergraduate education in the Physics Department. As a theoretical physicist, Blum specializes in making difficult, detailed mathematical calculations concerning how basic theories of physics, such as quantum mechanics, play out in setting the properties and behavior of matter, in his case the tiniest particles known. Notably, Blum is able to figure out how to perform calculations that others have found not possible. He has held visiting professorships at KEK in Japan, CERN in Switzerland, and the Helmholtz Institute in Germany. He has also won research awards including an Outstanding Junior Investigator award from the US Department of Energy, the Ken Wilson Award (top award in his subfield), is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, and was named a Fermilab Distinguished Scholar. At the same time, he is also a dedicated mentor, who supports the development of junior colleagues, and undergraduate and graduate students.


Standard model challenged by new measurement

The following article appeared in UConn Today on May 20, 2021 under by-line  

Physicists are one step closer to describing an anomaly, called the Muon g-2, that could challenge the fundamental laws of physics. It seems the muon may be breaking what have been understood as the laws of physics, and the findings announced on April 7th were met with much excitement and speculation at what this might mean. UConn physics researchers Professor Thomas Blum and Assistant Professor Luchang Jin helped pioneer the theoretical physics behind the findings, and they recently met with UConn Today to help explain the excitement.

What is a muon, and how do you study them?

Blum: A muon is a “fundamental particle,” meaning it’s an elementary particle like an electron or a photon. Muons are unstable, so they don’t live very long. Unlike an electron, where we can focus on them as long as we want and do measurements, we only have a little bit of time to take measurements of muons.

The way researchers perform the experiment is by slamming particles into other particles to create the muons, and they eventually collect them into a beam. This beam of muons travels at almost the speed of light where they live a little bit longer than they would if they were at rest. That’s Einstein’s theory of relativity in action.

The researchers put the muons into what’s called a storage ring where, eventually, they decay into other particles, and it’s those other particles that are detected in the experiment.

Muons have a property called a magnetic moment, which is like a little compass that points in the direction of the magnetic field that it’s in. In the storage ring, there’s a uniform magnetic field, and as the muons are going around in the storage ring, their magnetic moment, which would be perfectly aligned with their direction of travel if there were no anomaly, actually precesses with respect to the direction of travel as it goes around the ring, because of the interaction with the magnetic field.

It’s that precession that they’re measuring, because the precession is proportional to the strength of the magnetic moment. We can measure this magnetic moment extremely precisely in experiments, and we can calculate its value theoretically very precisely, to less than one-half part per million. Then we can compare the two and see how well they agree.

Can you explain the excitement surrounding these results?

Blum: For a long time — almost 20 years — the best measurement had been done at Brookhaven National Lab on Long Island, where they measured this magnetic moment very precisely, and found that it didn’t agree with our best fundamental theory, which is called the Standard Model of particle physics. The discrepancy wasn’t big enough to say that there was definitely something wrong with the Standard Model or not.

The new results are from a new experiment done to measure the magnetic moment even more precisely. That effort has been going on at Fermilab outside of Chicago for a few years now, and they just announced these results in early April. Their measurement is completely compatible with the Brookhaven value, and if you take the two together, then the disagreement with the Standard Model gets even worse: it now stands at 4.2 standard deviations.

People are very excited, because this could possibly signal that there is new physics in the universe that that we don’t know about yet. The new physics could be new particles that we’ve never seen before, or new interactions beyond the ones we know about already and that could explain the difference between what’s measured and what’s calculated. So that’s what everybody’s excited about.

Can you tell us about the Standard Model?

Jin: The Standard Model describes electromagnetic interactions between charged particles. It also describes the so called weak interactions, which is responsible for nuclear decay. The weak interactions become more important in high energy collisions, and unifies with the electromagnetic interactions. Lastly, the Standard Model describes the strong interactions, which bind quarks into nucleons and nuclei.

Basically, the Standard Model describes everything around us, ranging from things happening in our daily lives to the high-energy proton collisions in the Large Hadron Collider, with the major exception being gravity, which is only sort of visible, but we can feel it because gravity forces always add up, and there are a lot of other massive objects around us. It also doesn’t include dark matter, if we actually do have that in the universe.

People believe, and I think this is really true, that the Standard Model cannot possibly describe everything to extremely high precision, especially when we accelerate subatomic particles to very high energies. However, it was not very clear how high the energy or the precision has to be before we can see some discrepancies. We know the upper bound — usually referred to as the Planck scale, where the Standard Model has to fail due to the omission of gravity. But the Planck scale is so high that there is little hope to be able to perform experiments at that high energy. It is very nice to find a concrete example that the Standard Model actually misses something, and the g-2 anomaly is a very good candidate.

What roles did you each have in this research?

Jin: Theoretically, we decomposed the g-2 into contributions from the different types of interactions. At present, most of the values are obtained by analytic calculations of the various contributions. Other experimentally measurable quantities that have little to do with the muon magnetic moment experiments in terms of what they measure can be related through the Standard Model to the Muon g-2 value. So, to a large extent, this can still be viewed as a theory prediction. Blum pioneered the first lattice calculation for a certain g-2 contribution called the hadronic vacuum polarization, which doesn’t use experimental data at all.

Blum: Jin came up with new methods to compute the Hadronic Light-by-Light contribution which allowed us – with colleagues at Brookhaven National Lab, Columbia University, and Nagoya University – to compute it completely for the first time without experimental input. What Jin and I are doing, along with a host of other theorists around the world, is trying to better calculate the value of this magnetic moment from the theory side, so that we can have an even better comparison with the experimental measurements.

Jin: The Standard Model itself has a few parameters, which for most, we know very, very precisely. This includes the masses of the fundamental particles. In principle, as one might imagine, the theory prediction of the Muon g-2 is a very complicated expression just in terms of these numbers. We are not able to do that yet, but maybe soon we can. We expect that if we continue to improve our calculations, and as computers continue to get faster, the last digit determination may become more accurate.

To dig deeper into the science behind the findings, read Blum and Jin’s feature article on the findings in CERN Courier.

Professor Munirul Islam: Celebrating His Life and His Legacy

Dear Colleagues:

I would like to share some thoughts on Munir Islam who recently passed away. Prof. Islam came to UConn in 1967 from a faculty position at Brown University. In the late 1970s there were two particle theorists at UConn, Profs. Kurt Haller and Munir Islam. They set about building an elementary-particle theory program here and garnered the support of then Physics Head Joe Budnick and CLAS Dean Julius Elias. They soon obtained funding for a new Department of Energy initiative to support particle theory in the Department. In 1979 they
were able to bring me in as an Associate Professor and Mark Swanson as an Assistant Professor. So eager were Kurt and Munir to bring us in, they chose to forego the summer salary that they had been awarded on the DOE grant.  The impact of the DOE grant on the UConn administration was quite far reaching and led to further internal support. Within a few years I had been tenured and promoted to Full and Mark had been tenured and appointed to Associate at our Stamford branch, where he later became an administrator.

After that, Kurt and Munir were able to secure a bridge position with the DOE that would provide five years of support, provided the UConn administration would create a tenure track position for the recipient. This they agreed to do, and so we brought in Daniel Caldi at the Assistant level, who subsequently was appointed Associate with tenure. Dan eventually opted to leave us for SUNY Buffalo, but our particle group was then able to convince the UConn administration to let us keep the position, and we then hired Gerald Dunne. Gerald went up the ladder very quickly to tenured Full professor. The success of our program enabled us subsequently to bring in Alex
Kovner, followed by Tom Blum (both now tenured Full) and current Assistant Luchang Jin. The success and endurance of the particle group for more than forty years now is a testament to the foresight and the unwavering and unabating commitment of Kurt and Munir to it, and it serves as permanent memorial to both of them.

Munir Islam always retained an enthusiasm for research, an enthusiasm which did not diminish at all after he retired. He focused on fundamental problems in particle physics, with particular emphasis on the theory of the structure of the proton as revealed by high-energy proton-proton scattering. This is perhaps best evidenced in what essentially became a lifelong collaboration with his former graduate student Richard Luddy (at the right, with Prof Islam at the left in the above photograph) as the two of them grappled with Munir’s deep ideas on proton scattering during many of Munir’s later years as a Professor and then as an Emeritus. Munir had a gift for simple pictorial explanations of his research, which he was able to explain lucidly in a lecture for visiting high-school teachers and students during an open house. Munir was urbane, worldly, and wise, and it was a great joy to have him not just as a colleague but also as a friend. He will be sorely missed by all of those that knew him and especially by me as my career owes so much to him. In appreciation, Philip Mannheim.In appreciation,

Philip Mannheim.

A Signal from Beyond

Looking for ripples in the fabric of spacetime.

UConn astrophysicist Chiara Mingarelli is part of a team of researchers who recently published data on a hint of a signal that sent ripples of excitement through the physics community. These monumental findings are the culmination of twelve and a half years of data gathered from NANOGrav — a network of pulsars across the galaxy — all in the hopes of detecting gravitational waves.

Gravitational waves are generated when galaxies merge and supermassive black holes at their centers collide and send low-frequency gravitational waves out into the universe. The team thinks the source of the signal could be gravitational waves, but it will take about 2 more years of data to be sure.

The findings sparked the interest of other physicists with their own speculations about the signal, such as cosmic strings or primordial black holes. Though still a couple of years away, Mingarelli says the final results could also help test General Relativity or even open the door to entirely new physics.

This article first appeared on UConn Today, February 15, 2021

Jonathan Trump wins NSF Early Career Award

Jonathan Trump, Assistant Professor of Physics, will receive $738,090 over five years to compile a census of supermassive black holes in the universe. This will give insights into how supermassive black holes and galaxies evolve across cosmic time. Trump will also develop a bridge program for underrepresented undergraduate physics majors at UConn to increase their participation in STEM fields.
The NSF Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program supports early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education, and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. Activities pursued by early-career faculty build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.
Trump was one of 7 junior faculty at the University of Connecticut to receive the prestigious Early Career awards from NSF in 2020. For a description of all 7 awards, see this recent article published in UConn Today.