Brookhaven National Laboratory
Dr. Brett Fadem and students research at Brookhaven National Laboratory
Brett Fadem, associate professor of physics at Muhlenberg College, is the recipient of a National Science Foundation grant. Each summer, he brings Muhlenberg students to the Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) on Long Island, NY, where students learn about nuclear physics and work alongside some of the world’s foremost physicists.
Fadem’s students are able to participate in research at the laboratory through Muhlenberg’s relationship as an institutional member of the PHENIX collaboration, one of two large research groups that perform experiments at Brookehaven’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, the only currently active collider in the United States.
“Muhlenberg, as a small liberal arts college, doesn’t have its own particle accelerator - yet,” laughs Fadem. But the infrastructure at BLN helps expose students to an international community of scientists international community of scientists and gives the students opportunity to interface with scientific equipment worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Fadem finds specialized projects appropriate for each student’s interests. Students who enjoy hands-on assembly projects have helped build a large detector composed of numerous smaller modules. Other students have helped with analyzing the enormous datasets produced by RHIC and the PHENIX detector.
These giant detectors, in a way, function like cameras by capturing the data that results when elementary particles collide. Students enjoy knowing that they’re a part of building components of such specialized, advanced equipment.
“It’s very impressive for students to see the scale of science,” says Fadem. “When you study the very smallest things in the universe, you do so with some of the largest machines in the world.”
“With nuclear physics, we take big, complicated atomic nuclei and smash them together. What we try to do is create an environment where we can use the accelerator sort of like a time machine,” says Fadem. “If you look through a telescope, the deeper you look into space, the further back you see in time (due to the finite speed of light). But there’s a limit to optical telescopes - they can only look back to roughly 300,000 years after the big bang.”
Summer research experience often helps students clarify how they intend to focus their efforts during undergraduate and graduate education.
“Some students decide they want to be physicists, while others may not,” says Fadem. “Many students who attend learn more about engineering and consider pursuing that academic venture. We believe that the focus on collaborative and interdisciplinary learning is paramount.”
The experience remains remarkable for the students involved, regardless of future career paths.
“With a particle accelerator, in a tiny little volume of space, you can recreate the conditions that existed everywhere in the universe very shortly after it was created,” explains Fadem. “We’re creating the universe as it existed a few millionths of a second after it began. In a way, it’s a cosmology machine.”
(PHENIX Detector at Brookhaven National Laboratory, photo courtesy Brookhaven National Laboratory. Student photo courtesy Brett Fadem, associate professor of Physics at Muhlenberg College.)