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Michael Olson

Michael Olson (Physics)

August 2007

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Research collaboration jumps campus borders

During some of summer’s hottest nights, you’ll find Michael Olson (Physics) and Brian Hahn ’05 exactly where they want to be—conducting pivotal research side by side in the control room of Experimental Hall A at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Va.

The accelerator facility supports fundamental research in the areas of nuclear and particle physics. “It exists to provide fundamental knowledge of how our universe works at its smallest scale—the constituents,” says Olson. The civilian lab is funded by the National Department of Energy and does not support any commercial or military interests.

Olson invited Hahn, a doctoral student in nuclear physics at the College of William and Mary, to join him. As part of a team of about 50 people, they are attempting to make a precision measurement of the nature of the strong nuclear force. Simply put, there are two theoretical models of how the strong nuclear force works, each of which describes an aspect of the force. “What’s amazing is that, until this experiment, there hasn’t been a consistent set of measurements to reconcile these two different models,” says Olson.

The collaboration began with phase one of the experiment in fall 2006, in which Olson participated in during winter break. At that point, he recruited Hahn. “My former student is now a colleague,” Olson says. “We work side by side on the night shift to acquire data, operate the experimental apparatus, check data quality and fix problems as they arise,” says Olson.

Olson says Hahn’s background, experience and abilities, as well as his location only 30 miles from the facility, made him an excellent candidate to join the research team. “This is a wonderful opportunity for Brian—who will conduct his doctoral research in the same hall in about two years—to develop experience and familiarity with the equipment and operations in the hall,” he added.

He says that Hahn’s progress and learning during the past two years since Olson has seen him has been “amazing, both intellectually and professionally.” The appreciation goes both ways, as Hahn originally pursued a degree in mathematics at St. Norbert, but decided on a dual major after he was impressed with physics courses that included a class in quantum mechanics taught by Olson. “I was just learning so much and having too much fun not to pursue physics,” says Hahn.

Hahn says he has to pause occasionally to appreciate the fact that he now works alongside his former professor on a five-story-tall, 1,200-ton spectrometer. “I still can’t believe I have this opportunity, and all because Professor Olson knew what I was capable of.”

Olson adds, “We’re amazingly connected as a community sometimes. Experiments change, labs change, roles evolve and change, but in the end, we all end up working together at some point, on one project or another.”

“I’m very fortunate that the College community supports the initiatives of professors to further the student-teacher relationship.”

The research team collaboration hopes to have the first presentation of preliminary physics results in time for physics conferences in summer 2008, with anticipated article submission for peer review in late summer and into fall 2008.

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