SLAC: Fundamental questions

SLAC director works to keep funding for basic science in national labs

America's scientific elite and budget-slashing Tea Party Republicans might make for strange bedfellows.

But politics these days are such that the director of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory on Sand Hill Road recently found herself in Washington, D.C., face to face with Tea Party-backed freshman Congressman Andy Harris of Maryland.

SLAC Director Persis Drell recalled the conversation as "fascinating."

"The guy's a doctor -- he's smart," Drell said in a recent interview in her light-filled office.

"We didn't agree on everything, but it was definitely a fully engaged conversation. He learned about what we do, and we learned about some of his points of view."

Drell, a physicist who has worked at SLAC for a decade, has kept a heavy Washington schedule lately in efforts to preserve funding of the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

The office supports a network of scientific research laboratories across the United States, including her own.

As Congress heads toward the brink of a government shutdown, Drell has joined the directors of Lawrence Berkeley, Argonne, Oak Ridge and others on Capitol Hill to pitch the value of basic physical science research to "anyone who will listen."

Hence the conversation with Harris -- and other members on both sides of the aisle.

"We tell them there's a link between technical innovation and economic health for the nation," Drell said.

"We acknowledge that budget prioritization has to be done and that science can't be exempted from that kind of scrutiny.

"But there are areas of science that are essential to future innovation in this country."

A spending bill approved by the House last month -- though certain to be rejected by the Senate and the White House would spark substantial cuts at SLAC, forcing a "shut-down of most operating facilities," according to a document supplied by California Congressional Democrats.

Drell recently told SLAC's 1,500 staff members that explaining the role of the national labs to Congress "is my most important job now, and I am doing it with all the energy I possess.

"I will not keep news from you, good or bad," she promised.


It was a homecoming of sorts when Persis Drell moved into the SLAC director's office three years ago.

The daughter of Stanford University physicist Sidney Drell who was involved at high levels from SLAC's earliest days the younger Drell in many ways had grown up with the lab's sprawling hillside campus.

She was 7 years old when ground was broken for the 2-mile linear accelerator for particle physics research referred to at the time as "the monster coming out of the hills."

"Imagine what a child does with an idea like that," she laughed.

One of her early memories was of her father standing in the family's Stanford-campus home with SLAC's first director, Wolfgang "Pief" Panofsky, in deep discussion about "the monster."

She recalls her father taking her to watch archeologists remove bones after SLAC construction workers in 1964 unearthed a fossil skeleton of a marine mammal.

A replica of the creature, known as a paleoparadoxia, discovered in sediments deposited 15 million years ago, is on display in the SLAC Visitor Center.

But what Persis Drell most recalls about SLAC from her childhood were the outsized personalities at her parents' dinner table.

"I'd sit in a dark corner of the living room hoping not to be sent to bed so I could just listen to the conversation. I really had no interest in the content, just the people" physicists such as Panofsky, Burton Richter, Richard Taylor, Martin Perl, Richard Feynman, most of them Nobel Prize winners.

"In the early days a lot of them were coming here because the science was so great."


Drell felt insulted when she was "tracked low in math" as a seventh-grader at what was then Terman Junior High School and set out on a short and successful mission to prove the teachers wrong.

At Gunn High School, she loved Latin and excelled in math contests but claims to have been "appallingly bad" at physics.

"It's a disincentive in many ways to have a parent in the field," she said.

"I'd come home with homework. My father would want to explain it and I'd just want to know the answer to 5c."

But nudged by her father and inspired by a professor, Drell changed her mind as an undergraduate at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

"I walked into modern physics taught by Phyllis Fleming, and I fell in love," she said.

"I then took every course Phyllis Fleming offered in the department and ended up a double major in math and physics.

"She (Fleming) was just transformational."

In 2009, Drell was among those who delivered the eulogies at Fleming's memorial service.

While at Wellesley, Drell also took undergraduate physics courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and went on to earn a doctorate in atomic physics from the University of California at Berkeley.

After 14 years on the physics faculty of Cornell University, Drell returned to California in 2002 to become the research director at SLAC.


SLAC's 426-acre campus is dotted with eucalyptus and oaks, trailers, parking lots and '60s-era office buildings -- all surrounding the 2-mile-long "monster" klystron gallery that runs beneath Interstate Highway 280.

The specialized microwave klystrons in the gallery power the accelerator, buried more than 30 feet below.

In the Control Center -- a darkened room containing dozens of monitors -- technicians and physicists remotely operate all the machines running at SLAC at any given time.

"This is where you come to move magnets around, turn the accelerator on or off," explained Daniel Ratner, a physics doctoral candidate and SLAC tour guide.

"Users can call and say, 'I want more power, or shorter pulses,' or whatever they need for their experiment."

Except for regular maintenance, the machines operate around the clock with projects from staff scientists or some 3,000 visiting scientists who come through each year.

SLAC experiments with particle colliders through the 1970s yielded the discovery of new fundamental particles including the psi, charm quark and tau lepton, leading to the so-called Standard Model of Particle Physics and Nobel prizes for several of the physicists who had gathered around the Drells' dining-room table at Stanford.

But the lab was forced to re-invent itself in the following decades when the frontier of particle physics moved to newer machines at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, near Geneva.

SLAC projects began shifting toward the use of intense light beams to analyze the structure of matter.

And around 2000, "particle physics got a huge surprise," Drell said, with data from the study of distant supernova out of UC Berkeley and Harvard University.

"It forced us to accept that we'd just spent 40 years studying 4 percent of the universe and that 96 percent was made of forms of matter and energy that we still to this day don't know what they are," Drell said.

"We have an incredibly detailed understanding of the 4 percent -- quarks, leptons, the Standard Model -- and over 90 percent is made up of dark matter and dark energy, and we don't really know what those are."

In response, SLAC has repurposed old equipment and become a multi-program lab, with the powerful free-electron laser Linac Coherent Light Source; multiple projects in astrophysics and participation in CERN's Large Hadron Collider.

Part of the original accelerator, which a half-century ago probed the nucleon and discovered quarks, is now used for studying the structure of matter using the beams of a free-electron laser.

In 2008, SLAC turned off the last accelerator specifically dedicated to studying fundamental particles.

"For the people who were here in the '70s when we were the center of the universe in particle physics, that's been a hard transition," Drell said.

On the upside, she said, the early performance of the free-electron laser, which went online in 2009, has exceeded expectations.

"It's a tribute to the accelerator scientists here, and a lot of luck," she said.


Experiments using SLAC's X-ray sources continue to translate to a variety of applications, particularly in medicine.

Using light sources to determine the structure of a virus, scientists can design an anti-viral drug to neutralize it or make it inactive. SLAC projects also have helped determine the structure of the ribosome.

"It goes from that kind of science to things like, for example, using the X-rays to study the coating on the Army's night-vision goggles to keep it from peeling off," Drell said.

"But the most common uses are in the areas of biopharmaceuticals and drug discovery, using the X-ray source to understand the structure of proteins."

In particle physics, the applications to daily life are less direct, though Drell notes that the particle physics community was an initial developer of the World Wide Web because of the need for collaboration with global counterparts.

"The accelerators we've developed to study particle physics have found their way into medical treatment, whether proton therapy or heavy ion therapy, a cutting-edge cancer treatment," she noted.

"Actual particle physics itself doesn't make a better light bulb.

"But we all feel that studying things like what the universe is made of, at its most basic and fundamental level, is something we ought to be doing, because these are great questions."

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Like this comment
Posted by local science buff
a resident of Stanford
on Mar 18, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Thanks for an nice story on an admirable lady. However, the implication in your lead sentence that these science leaders are "bedfellows" with Tea Party Republicans is inaccurate--and not even congruent with the rest of your own story. Talking does not make people bedfellows. If I read only your first sentence (as many browsing news may do), I would assume the story discussed shady dealings among these people. All just to write a cute lead? Not worth it.

Like this comment
Posted by Roland
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 18, 2011 at 3:09 pm

The article is a fairly comprehensive and well written overview of SLAC in the context of the budget crisis and the importance of basic research. Facilities like this are crucial for our society because if we do not hold in high esteem the search for answers to the fundamental nature of our world, our place in it, and how we might use that information to enrich our lives then we might as well go back to living in caves. Honestly, we should just give up now, take our ball, and wait for the next mass extinction if our elected officials cannot work together for a budget resolution to fund important basic and applied research like SLC, PEP, the LCLS, etc. at facilities like SLAC, Fermilab, Argonne, NASA, and so on.

I also liked the bit about the professor who inspired Persis. How many of us were on the verge of giving up on something difficult but truly rewarding and then because of the encouragement of a teacher, eschewed the easy route for a life more rewarding?

Like this comment
Posted by Mo
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 18, 2011 at 3:42 pm

All these words, and still .. not a clear vision of what SLAC will be doing in the future, to justify US taxpayer support. The Director hints that some medical research is being done at SLAC, but fails to provide clear explanation why this research requires a Linear Accelerator.

The Director talks about SLAC being involved in the development of the WWW, but in reality, it appears that SLAC was just a very early adopter of this technology, having contributed just a "port" to one of the local machines of some web software:

Web Link

None of the Weekly articles have managed to investigate SLAC's budget to the point that the yearly cost to the taxpayer is included in an article. Neither is there any comment about the capital costs of building this facility from its inception.

In a previous article about SLAC, some comments suggested that SLAC would not do defense work. Certainly an interview with the Director about SLACs role in National Defense would probably have been more interesting than learning about her trials and tribulations as a teenager some 30-40 years ago.

Amazing how the media will do anything to avoid actually digging up the details that would help us taxpayers understand what's going on at SLAC.

Like this comment
Posted by Bob Cook
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 18, 2011 at 8:19 pm

Mo, I think you made some valid points. Some of the things that you found uninteresting, others found more interesting. And the things you wanted instead weren't there.

But I'd like to address one of your points that I think missed Drell's point. You said

'The Director talks about SLAC being involved in the development of the WWW, but in reality, it appears that SLAC was just a very early adopter of this technology, having contributed just a "port" to one of the local machines of some web software <Web Link>'

What's actually in the article is this sentence:

'In particle physics, the applications to daily life are less direct, though Drell notes that the particle physics community was an initial developer of the World Wide Web because of the need for collaboration with global counterparts.'

That says that "the particle physics community", not just SLAC, was an initial WWW developer. The WWW was invented at CERN, with the particle physics community leading the way in its adoption. But the point she was trying to make is that fundamental research often leads to very important things that nobody would have imagined at the beginning; the WWW is a huge example that came directly out of particle physics, but I believe there are lots of others in other fundamental research fields.

Like this comment
Posted by Steve Lewis
a resident of another community
on Mar 20, 2011 at 1:59 pm

Several points have been missed here:

1. By re-using the old Linac it was possible to construct LCLS for much less money, in a shorter time, and with much less technical risk than would have been the case for a 'green field' approach: a good deal for the taxpayer. In fact the whole facility met all its goals ahead of time and now exceeds the technical requirements by a large margin.

2. LCLS produces X-Rays that that far exceed any existing method of probing molecules (proteins) important to society. There are many proteins that cannot be prepared for conventional X-Ray probes; LCLS experiments have demonstrated that unprepared (possibly even living) biologic elements can be studied; the implications for medicine and biofuels are breath-taking and will have a relatively short time to witness their beneficial impact on society. LCLS will also allow 'molecular movies' to be made, so that reactions of importance to society--for example, combustion--can be understood.

3. Start/stop funding is very, very inefficient. Assembling the multidisciplinary engineering teams, buying and commissioning the facility equipment, arranging the schedules of experimenters from all over the world…this takes years of advance planning. Time lost can never really be made up. Although the centers-of-excellence for high-energy physics have moved away from SLAC, SLAC is now the prime candidate to be a center-of-excellence for medicine and biofuels; to endanger this prospect is truly to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

I am a 70-year old scientist/engineer that came out of retirement to work on this project. I live in Oakland--yes, quite a commute.

Like this comment
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 20, 2011 at 5:56 pm


Here is the homepage for *one* of the things done at SLAC:

Web Link

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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