Some 60 up-and-coming scholars in high-energy physics will gather in St. Croix this week for a biennial conference, founded by a University of Rochester professor, that fosters collaboration among young physicists from around the world. It's among the most popular and successful schools of its kind in the world of high-energy physics -- the study of the very tiniest particles that make up the universe -- and has become a rite of passage for those hunting such exotic entities as quarks, neutrinos and bosons.
"We want to get these sharp young minds talking to each other," says Thomas Ferbel, a physics professor at Rochester and director of the NATO Advanced Study Institute (NATO-ASI). "After spending years in their labs working intently on their own individual projects, most of these students find it almost like coming out into the daylight suddenly they get the big picture of all that's happening in particle physics."
Ferbel conceived of the program some 20 years ago when a graduate student he knew became so frustrated at being trapped at Fermilab (a physics laboratory near Chicago) during the Christmas holiday that he tore his car apart. Every other year since 1980 the program has provided a respite for young scientists who have recently finished the grueling years of study needed to perform research in high-energy physics.
NATO-ASI has drawn graduate students and postdoctoral researchers from dozens of nations to the Caribbean. The physicists get the chance to attend intimate lectures with the stars of high-energy physics -- top scientists from facilities such as the Max Planck Institute in Munich, CERN in Geneva, and Fermilab and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in the United States. They also meet those who will soon be their colleagues.
"The school itself was terrific, and certainly there are few events in my life that I remember so vividly," says Larry Gladney, who attended NATO-ASI in 1982 and is now a member of the physics faculty at the University of Pennsylvania. "It was the first time I'd gotten to talk one-on-one with the physicists whose names were in my textbooks. Also, it really was the first time I was exposed to grad students outside my normal scope, and several are now my collaborators."
The 10th session of NATO-ASI is taking place June 18-29, with participants from 20 countries convening on Protestant Cay, a small island off the coast of St. Croix that's accessible only by boat. "It's a good place for people to dedicate all their attention to the task at hand, away from research pressures and interruptions," Ferbel says. "It's also a sort of reward for these hard-working people."
At the conference, attendees spend five hours a day in lectures on current experimental techniques and recent developments in high-energy physics -- and much of the rest of the time discussing what they've learned. The 12 subjects of discussion at this year's conference include the asymmetry of matter and antimatter in the universe, a progress report on the challenges facing a major new particle collider at CERN, and the unexpected decay of some subatomic particles that may suggest the existence of as-yet unknown physical processes.
NATO-ASI is sponsored by NATO's Division of Scientific Affairs, the U.S. Department of Energy's High Energy Physics Program, the National Science Foundation's Elementary Particle Physics Program, Fermilab, and the University. After each conference, proceedings are published and soon become required reading in graduate-level physics courses all over the world.