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Northwestern University

Meet Physicist Jerry Gabrielse

The antimatter expert talks about his impending move to Northwestern, his groundbreaking work and his life outside the lab

At a December reception for newly hired professor Gerald Gabrielse and his wife, Ellen, the physicist’s future colleagues welcomed him to the team and showered him with public praise.

When it was his turn to speak, Gabrielse offered earnest words in keeping with his self-deprecating style.

“Here’s to hoping that five years from now people in this room don’t think they made a huge mistake,” Gabrielse quipped.

After nearly three decades at Harvard, including a stint as the physics department chair, Gabrielse will be trading Cambridge for Evanston and crimson for purple. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, Gabrielse is leaving Harvard for the opportunity to help propel Northwestern’s scientific efforts.

In September 2017, Gabrielse, one of the world’s leading researchers in super-precise measurements of fundamental particles and the study of antimatter, will begin his new appointment as the Board of Trustees Professor of Physics and founding director of the Center for Fundamental Physics at Low Energies (CFP), an innovative experimental research center that will test the world’s most fundamental theoretical descriptions.

Gabrielse, whom Weinberg College Dean Adrian Randolph hailed as “a big-picture thinker, scientist of the highest caliber and dedicated teacher,” discusses his impending move to Northwestern, his groundbreaking work and his life outside the lab.

What drives your research?

I’m very curious about how we should properly describe reality at its most fundamental level. Our current description makes remarkably precise predictions, the most precise test of which was made by my students and I. Nonetheless, it is clearly either incomplete or wrong in very basic ways and it has too many parameters for my taste.

In what ways is our current description of the world incomplete or wrong?

In physics, we talk about something called the Standard Model of Particle Physics. It’s our most basic, fundamental description of nature at the physical level. According to the Standard Model, the Big Bang should have produced essentially equal amounts of matter and antimatter. As the universe cooled, the matter and antimatter should have collided, annihilated and disappeared, leaving no universe behind. It is intriguing and even alarming that our wonderfully successful description of physical reality is so clearly wrong on some major issues. What I try to do with my group is to pick ways and places in the universe that we can experimentally test our most fundamental understanding.

What are the practical implications of your research?

When you’re doing fundamental physics like this, you can discover things that have an unintended impact. One of my colleagues discovered nuclear magnetic resonance. He never imagined that every hospital in the country would be adding [this technology] at as rapid a rate as they could afford in order to do magnetic resonance imaging. Another colleague invented the hydrogen maser, an atomic clock — never, ever imagining the result that all of our cars and telephones would have GPS in them. You need to do fundamental physics like this if you want to have a strong and developing basis for a technological society.

What's most exciting to you about launching the CFP?

I hope to give some younger colleagues and students a chance to join this basic enterprise of using small-scale laboratory experiments to probe reality at its most fundamental level. It’s exciting because we will soon have a critical mass of people doing this together in a very visible way. Northwestern faculty and students will have the movers and shakers in this particular area coming to talk to us in a weekly colloquium.

What do you enjoy doing outside of research and academia?

I do crazy things once in a while to try to prove that I’m not an old fat guy. I never succeed in proving that, but it feels good to try. For example, I rode my bicycle several years ago from Boston to Grand Rapids, Michigan — 940 miles in nine days — just to see if I could do it. More recently, I decided that I was getting a little heavy, so I solo-backpacked 150 miles of the Long Trail in Vermont. Maybe going to Northwestern is a similar thing: every once in a while you have to do something crazy just to make sure you’re still alive.

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