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.

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.

At sites scattered about two continents, the professor hopes to answer just about all the cliffhangers in high-energy physics - and to answer them first. ''Who remembers the second person to write E EQUALS mc2?'' he chortles, referring to Einstein's famed expression that links energy and matter. Rubbia, a physicist who has rarely been second at anything, doesn't wait for an answer.

Instead, he paces distractedly about the drab, cinder-block-walled office at Harvard, where since 1970 he has spent one semester each year coaching graduate students. Rubbia is always in motion - pacing, gesticulating. ''I'm stubborn; I know what I want,'' he says. ''I'll dedicate all my efforts to achieving it.''

That approach has stood by him well. Experimental physicists like Rubbia are the masters of Big Science, a modern phenomenon that is defined mostly by large numbers. Its research teams are routinely comprised of more than 100 PhDs. The instruments they use to peel away the atom's secrets - giant particle accelerators that smack bits of matter into each other - can cost upward of $1 billion. Tens of millions of dollars can be spent on a single experiment, which in Rubbia's case took seven years. Thus, the head of such a monumental effort has to be diplomat, entrepreneur, accountant - as well as ivory-tower theoretician - in order to pull it off.

And he had better have an idea worth pursuing, as well as the tenacity to back it up. When Rubbia and colleagues David Cline and Peter McIntyre first presented their idea for a new and more powerful kind of particle accelerator to the scientific community, he says, ''nobody wanted to hear it.'' Finally, in Rubbia's words, he went to then-fledgling CERN, where he became the ''missionary'' for a four-mile, circular, proton-antiproton colliding accelerator. CERN became convinced that his device was the only way to confirm one of the great unproven hunches of the day, the ''electroweak'' theory, and the giant accelerator was built.

During the 1960s, when physicists Sheldon Glashow, Abdus Salam, and Steven Weinberg put together a theory that linked two forces - electromagnetism, the force that makes clothes cling and light bulbs light, and the so-called ''weak'' force, which controls radioactive decay - as part of one force known as ''electroweak.'' It was the first step toward linking all four fundamental forces - the other two being the ''strong'' force, which binds particles in an atom's nucleus, and gravity - in a series of simple equations as yet unfound but already named: the Grand Unified Theory. For their efforts, they shared the 1979 Nobel Prize in physics.

The Glashow-Weinberg-Salam theory said that electroweak is carried by a group of three ''heavy'' photons or ''vector bosons.'' So the contest was on to find those three particles: a positive and negative W particle, and a neutral Z.

In those days, accelerators such as the one at CERN sped bits of matter like protons close to light velocity and smashed them against fixed targets. The protons are like tiny garbage cans, packed with all kinds of particles, many of them lasting for only billionths of a second, that shower out on impact. Scientists studied all those bits and tried to deduce the nature of the stuff from which matter is made.

It was not powerful enough to find the much-sought-after Ws and Z, however. Rubbia's idea was to collect a beam of anti-protons - anti-matter opposites of protons - and fire it at an oncoming beam of protons. The resulting violence - far beyond anything that had been produced - would be great enough to uncover the elusive bosons, and electroweak would be proved.

Accelerator architect Simon van der Meer translated Rubbia's plan into realty. The technique was so critical to the success of the Rubbia experiment that Dr. van der Meer is sharing this year's physics prize with him. He is the only accelerator architect to be so honored since E. O. Lawrence, who built the first accelerator - a tabletop model - in 1939.

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