At BNL and SBU’s nuclear center, the force awakens

Crash course: A hypothetical particle accelerator that smashes together ions and electrons will be a focal point of the new Center for Frontiers in Nuclear Science.

A new force is rising in the exploration of the physical universe.

Brookhaven National Laboratory and Stony Brook University on Tuesday announced the launch of the Center for Frontiers in Nuclear Science, a research hub built to explore “the least understood and strongest force behind visible matter,” according to the university.

Supported by a new $5 million grant from the Simons Foundation and some $3 million in research grants awarded to SBU by various organizations, the center will leverage researchers, facilities and resources from the two primary institutions in an effort to unravel mysteries involving quarks and gluons – the tiniest of subatomic building blocks – and how their interactions form protons and neutrons, which comprise 99.9 percent of the atomic mass of the visible universe.

The center builds on SBU and BNL’s internationally renowned nuclear physics programs, which are already knee-deep in quantum chromodynamics – a branch of physics that describes the properties of nucleons, starting with those quark/gluon reactions.

The center will be managed by Director Abhay Deshpande, a professor of experimental nuclear physics in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in SBU’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Deshpande, who also serves as BNL’s director of Electron Ion Collider sciences, is a longtime advocate for building a high-luminosity electron-ion collider in the United States. He is the founder of the EIC Users Group, a global scientific community focused on the science of electron-ion collisions.

An electron-ion collider could be created by adding an electron ring to BNL’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, a miles-long proton/heavy-ion accelerator/collider running underneath the Upton laboratory. That’s one of several possibilities expected to be thoroughly vetted by the new Center for Frontiers in Nuclear Science, which will “bring us closer to understanding our universe in ways in which it has never before been possible,” according to SBU President Samuel Stanley Jr.

“Thanks to the vision of the Simons Foundation, scientists from Stony Brook, Brookhaven Laboratory and many other institutions are now empowered to pursue the big ideas that will lead to new knowledge about the structure of the building blocks of everything in the universe today,” Stanley said Tuesday.

Simons Foundation Chairman James Simons, the founder of East Setauket-based Renaissance Technologies and SBU’s all-time mot-generous private benefactor, called nuclear physics “a deep and important discipline” and said it was “a pleasure to support research in this area.”

“We much look forward to the results of this effort,” Simons said in a statement.

While the construction of a domestic EIC will be at the center’s heart, fundamental research will be its soul. The big idea is to mix the combined scientific might of SBU and BNL researchers with new scientific talent from around the world in an investigation of the inner workings of nucleons – essential to visible matter as we know it, but still a structural and internal-dynamic mystery.

Abhay Deshpande: Beam him up.

Among the Center for Frontiers in Nuclear Science’s functions will be workshops and seminars by international scientists, for international scientists, promoting new theoretical concepts and experimental measurements that advance quantum chromodynamics. Scientists will also enjoy access to RHIC data and other research tools at both institutions.

Over a course of “several decades,” according to SBU, the center is expected to become “a leading international intellectual hub for QCD.”

But the short-term construction of a new electron-ion collider will definitely be a rallying point. As part of 2015’s “Reaching for the Horizon: The 2015 Long-Range Plan for Nuclear Science,” the U.S. Department of Energy – which owns and operates BNL – and the National Science Foundation’s Nuclear Science Advisory Committee recommended an EIC as a high new-construction priority.

The hypothetical particle accelerator would not only strengthen U.S. leadership in nuclear physics, but would “stimulate economic benefits well into the 2040s,” according to SBU.

It would also create what the university called “rapid-fire, high-resolution ‘snapshots’ of quarks and gluons contained in nucleons and complex nuclei” – an unprecedented peek into the scientific world that could open an entirely new nuclear physics frontier, according to Brookhaven National Laboratory Director Doon Gibbs.

“The role of quarks and gluons in determining the properties of protons and neutrons remains one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in physics,” Gibbs noted. “An electron-ion collider would reveal the internal structure of these atomic building blocks, a key part of the quest to understand the matter we’re made of.”

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