|The teacher held up a paper bag in front of the class. She told the students that the bag contained two pictures that had been cut into pieces. She slowly looked around the classroom and asked, “What are the pictures about?” What a silly question!
The teacher chose a student to come and pick a piece of the picture from the bag. The student studied the piece and then held it up for the class to view. “Now can you tell me what the pictures are?” asked the teacher. They now knew that part of one of the pictures was green. But that was just one little piece from one picture. What can it tell you? The more pieces they drew, however, the more they learned about the two pictures. Eventually, when all of the pieces were available, they could be put together to make out the two pictures. The mystery was solved!
Imagine trying to figure out a mystery with only parts of pictures mixed in with other pieces. As a physicist, this is what I do with atoms. There are more than a million atoms on the period at the end of this sentence. Imagine trying to study just one atom on that period. Because we cannot see atoms, sometimes the only information we have about them are the pieces that come out when we smash two of them together in a cyclotron. A cyclotron is a big machine that makes atoms travel very fast and then smashes them together. The parts of the atoms fly in every direction. Physicists build detectors to try and see these very small fragments that are left over from these planned collisions. I then try to understand how the pieces were put together in the first place, just like the students did in the story above. Wouldn’t it be fun to get paid to smash things together? Physicists do exactly this.
I became interested in mathematics and science in high school. The high school in Santa Fe, New Mexico that I attended had excellent mathematics and science teachers. I was surprised at how much fun it was to learn about these subjects. I went to college at New Mexico State University, where I was only able to attend because I had a cooperative student scholarship. This meant that I would work six months of the year in a technical job, and go to school the other six months. I worked very hard and was actually able to go to the University of Göttingen in Germany as a Fulbright scholar for one year. This is where some of the famous scientists I’d read about, such as Max Born and Werner Heisenberg, had worked. I eventually received my Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1966. Of the many different types of physicists, I am called a “theoretical physicist.” I use mathematics to describe the atom and how it works. Then I apply what I’ve learned to the rest of nature.
When stars die they throw out most of their mass into space. Over time new stars form from the recycled elements of other stars. When the Sun formed, some of the leftover material made up the planets. So, in essence, everything on the Earth is made of materials from stars, including you! And what makes up stars? Atoms. So by studying atoms I am actually studying stars, humans, and everything else in the universe. By smashing atoms together, physicists are working to discover the secrets of nature and these discoveries have changed the world.