SLAC: fundamental questions

SLAC director works to keep funding for basic science in national labs

By Chris Kenrick

Embarcadero Media

America's scientific elite and budget-slashing Tea Party Republicans might make for strange bedfellows.

But politics these days are such that the director of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park recently found herself in Washington, D.C., face to face with Tea Party-backed freshman Congressman Andy Harris of Maryland.

SLAC Director Persis Drell recalled the conversation as "fascinating."

"The guy's a doctor -- he's smart," Drell said in a recent interview in her light-filled office.

"We didn't agree on everything, but it was definitely a fully engaged conversation. He learned about what we do, and we learned about some of his points of view."

Drell, a physicist who has worked at SLAC for a decade, has kept a heavy Washington schedule lately in efforts to preserve funding of the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

The office supports a network of scientific research laboratories across the United States, including her own.

As Congress heads toward the brink of a government shutdown, Drell has joined the directors of Lawrence Berkeley, Argonne, Oak Ridge and others on Capitol Hill to pitch the value of basic physical science research to "anyone who will listen."

Hence the conversation with Harris -- and other members on both sides of the aisle.

"We tell them there's a link between technical innovation and economic health for the nation," Drell said.

"We acknowledge that budget prioritization has to be done and that science can't be exempted from that kind of scrutiny.

"But there are areas of science that are essential to future innovation in this country."

A spending bill approved by the House last month -- though certain to be rejected by the Senate and the White House would spark substantial cuts at SLAC, forcing a "shut-down of most operating facilities," according to a document supplied by California Congressional Democrats.

Drell recently told SLAC's 1,500 staff members that explaining the role of the national labs to Congress "is my most important job now, and I am doing it with all the energy I possess.

"I will not keep news from you, good or bad," she promised.


It was a homecoming of sorts when Persis Drell moved into the SLAC director's office three years ago.

The daughter of Stanford University physicist Sidney Drell who was involved at high levels from SLAC's earliest days the younger Drell in many ways had grown up with the lab's sprawling hillside campus.

She was 7 years old when ground was broken for the 2-mile linear accelerator for particle physics research referred to at the time as "the monster coming out of the hills."

"Imagine what a child does with an idea like that," she laughed.

One of her early memories was of her father standing in the family's Stanford-campus home with SLAC's first director, Wolfgang "Pief" Panofsky, in deep discussion about "the monster."

She recalls her father taking her to watch archeologists remove bones after SLAC construction workers in 1964 unearthed a fossil skeleton of a marine mammal.

A replica of the creature, known as a paleoparadoxia, discovered in sediments deposited 15 million years ago, is on display in the SLAC Visitor Center.

But what Persis Drell most recalls about SLAC from her childhood were the outsized personalities at her parents' dinner table.

"I'd sit in a dark corner of the living room hoping not to be sent to bed so I could just listen to the conversation. I really had no interest in the content, just the people" physicists such as Panofsky, Burton Richter, Richard Taylor, Martin Perl, Richard Feynman, most of them Nobel Prize winners.

"In the early days a lot of them were coming here because the science was so great."


Drell felt insulted when she was "tracked low in math" as a seventh-grader at what was then Terman Junior High School and set out on a short and successful mission to prove the teachers wrong.

At Gunn High School, she loved Latin and excelled in math contests but claims to have been "appallingly bad" at physics.

"It's a disincentive in many ways to have a parent in the field," she said.

"I'd come home with homework. My father would want to explain it and I'd just want to know the answer to 5c."

But nudged by her father and inspired by a professor, Drell changed her mind as an undergraduate at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

"I walked into modern physics taught by Phyllis Fleming, and I fell in love," she said.

"I then took every course Phyllis Fleming offered in the department and ended up a double major in math and physics.

"She (Fleming) was just transformational."

In 2009, Drell was among those who delivered the eulogies at Fleming's memorial service.

While at Wellesley, Drell also took undergraduate physics courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and went on to earn a doctorate in atomic physics from the University of California at Berkeley.

After 14 years on the physics faculty of Cornell University, Drell returned to California in 2002 to become the research director at SLAC.


SLAC's 426-acre campus is dotted with eucalyptus and oaks, trailers, parking lots and '60s-era office buildings -- all surrounding the 2-mile-long "monster" klystron gallery that runs beneath Interstate Highway 280.

The specialized microwave klystrons in the gallery power the accelerator, buried more than 30 feet below.

In the Control Center -- a darkened room containing dozens of monitors -- technicians and physicists remotely operate all the machines running at SLAC at any given time.

"This is where you come to move magnets around, turn the accelerator on or off," explained Daniel Ratner, a physics doctoral candidate and SLAC tour guide.

"Users can call and say, 'I want more power, or shorter pulses,' or whatever they need for their experiment."

Except for regular maintenance, the machines operate around the clock with projects from staff scientists or some 3,000 visiting scientists who come through each year.

SLAC experiments with particle colliders through the 1970s yielded the discovery of new fundamental particles including the psi, charm quark and tau lepton, leading to the so-called Standard Model of Particle Physics and Nobel prizes for several of the physicists who had gathered around the Drells' dining-room table at Stanford.

But the lab was forced to re-invent itself in the following decades when the frontier of particle physics moved to newer machines at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, near Geneva.

SLAC projects began shifting toward the use of intense light beams to analyze the structure of matter.

And around 2000, "particle physics got a huge surprise," Drell said, with data from the study of distant supernova out of UC Berkeley and Harvard University.

"It forced us to accept that we'd just spent 40 years studying 4 percent of the universe and that 96 percent was made of forms of matter and energy that we still to this day don't know what they are," Drell said.

"We have an incredibly detailed understanding of the 4 percent -- quarks, leptons, the Standard Model -- and over 90 percent is made up of dark matter and dark energy, and we don't really know what those are."

In response, SLAC has repurposed old equipment and become a multi-program lab, with the powerful free-electron laser Linac Coherent Light Source; multiple projects in astrophysics and participation in CERN's Large Hadron Collider.

Part of the original accelerator, which a half-century ago probed the nucleon and discovered quarks, is now used for studying the structure of matter using the beams of a free-electron laser.

In 2008, SLAC turned off the last accelerator specifically dedicated to studying fundamental particles.

"For the people who were here in the '70s when we were the center of the universe in particle physics, that's been a hard transition," Drell said.

On the upside, she said, the early performance of the free-electron laser, which went online in 2009, has exceeded expectations.

"It's a tribute to the accelerator scientists here, and a lot of luck," she said.


Experiments using SLAC's X-ray sources continue to translate to a variety of applications, particularly in medicine.

Using light sources to determine the structure of a virus, scientists can design an anti-viral drug to neutralize it or make it inactive. SLAC projects also have helped determine the structure of the ribosome.

"It goes from that kind of science to things like, for example, using the X-rays to study the coating on the Army's night-vision goggles to keep it from peeling off," Drell said.

"But the most common uses are in the areas of biopharmaceuticals and drug discovery, using the X-ray source to understand the structure of proteins."

In particle physics, the applications to daily life are less direct, though Drell notes that the particle physics community was an initial developer of the World Wide Web because of the need for collaboration with global counterparts.

"The accelerators we've developed to study particle physics have found their way into medical treatment, whether proton therapy or heavy ion therapy, a cutting-edge cancer treatment," she noted.

"Actual particle physics itself doesn't make a better light bulb.

"But we all feel that studying things like what the universe is made of, at its most basic and fundamental level, is something we ought to be doing, because these are great questions."

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