Carlo Rubbia is heavy hitter in Big Science
IN the ball game of international physics, in which the United States and Europe vie to uncover the fundamental nature of matter, Carlo Rubbia is one of the league's heavy hitters. No wonder he's picking up a shared Nobel Prize in Physics today in Stockholm.Skip to next paragraph
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He is the one who almost singlehandedly cajoled the European scientific establishment into building the world's largest particle-smashing instrument - an underground behemoth four miles in circumference, straddling the Franco-Swiss border - after US decisionmakers had turned the idea down. He is the one who managed to rally 130 PhDs behind him in the search to find the smallest constituents of matter. And partly because of his efforts, the US is scrambling to regain the lead it enjoyed in earlier ''innings'' since World War II.
In short, Dr. Rubbia is a reigning champion of Big Science.
''Forget all the sociological questions about whether or not a Nobel Prize can be given to an individual when scores (of people) have been involved,'' says Leon Lederman, director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill. ''No one deserves this more than Carlo, because it's been his production all along.''
Rubbia's production made its public debut on a January day in 1983, when he officially ended a two-decade hunt that had obsessed hundreds of scientists. His research team had found three critical subatomic particles during experiments at CERN, the international atomic research center on the outskirts of Geneva. And with that revelation, two of four fundamental forces thought to govern nature were proven to be part of a greater whole.
Almost instantly it was understood throughout the scientific community that this Italian citizen, Geneva resident, and Harvard professor had the Nobel credential sewn up - at least someday. It can take decades for the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to recognize someone's work.
Less than two years later, just days before he leaves for Stockholm, Rubbia plows through a stack of mail - much it congratulatory - spilled across his desk. He chats with characteristic exuberance about the prize. ''You have two alternatives,'' he instructs. ''One: you can put your life on hold and wait for the phone to ring. Two: you run ahead as if your life depended on it.''
Rubbia chose the latter. In July, his research team closed yet another chapter in the annals of modern physics when it announced the discovery of the last of six predicted building blocks of matter, known as ''quarks.''
Now, his niche in history ensured, Rubbia's future plans are simple: ''Work, '' he states. ''The field is moving ahead so fast, you just can't afford to sit still.''
So Rubbia has been running hard. ''Carlo is setting the pace for this science ,'' says Fermi's Dr. Lederman. In an age when scientists routinely travel around the world to attend scientific conferences, he travels so much - over 20 trips across the Atlantic a year - that he has earned the sobriquet ''Alitalia scientist'' from his colleagues, and the Italian national airline has given him a seat on its board of directors.
He has to travel. Pencil-and-paper theorists can toil anywhere. But, says Rubbia, a thoroughbred experimentalist who confirms or shatters the hunches of theoreticians: ''I have to be where the best work can be done.''
He plans to search for antimatter in the universe, using the space shuttle to detect cosmic rays. The rest of his experiments are underground - in secluded, cavernous spaces that can accommodate his often-massive equipment. In an old Utah salt mine, he has been trying to find out if subatomic fragments called protons decay. (If they do, it implies that matter is unstable.) He plans to start a similar inquiry somewhere under the Alps.
Beneath an abandoned iron smelter in Wisconsin, he is searching for the elusive magnetic monopole - a theoretically predicted particle that has one charge, or pole, instead of two, as do all magnetic substances observed so far. And, of course, his work continues at CERN's proton-antiproton accelerator, under dairy farms at the Franco-Swiss border.