A Coming-Out Party for a Particle Collider The New York Times, Sunday, January 21, 2001 by Valerie Cotsalas UPTON In a sea of hundreds of scientists Angelika Drees laughed and spoke excitedly in German as she rushed to embrace Heinz Pernegger in a crowded lecture hall. The two European physicists hadn't seen each other since Dr. Pernegger left for Geneva last year. The setting was a coffee break between seminars at last week's Quark Matter 2001 conference at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. More than 700 physicists and graduate students from 35 countries converged on Long Island to hear reports about last year's inaugural run of the Relativistic Heavy lon Collider, the immense new particle collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory. The machine, called RHIC, is the most powerful machine of its kind. "I like being at RHIC because it's the hottest thing going on line right now," said Dr. Drees, a 36-year-old accelerator physicist who hails from Germany but has been living on Long Island for the last three years. "You do everything-you design, install, analyze data, publish. You can do things yourself here. It's not so structured." Like many of their nearly 1,000 colleagues working on the RHIC project, Dr. Drees and Dr. Pernegger have also worked at the Swiss laboratory, CERN, where scientists spent years trying to create a new state of matter that is believed to have existed in the moments following the Big Bang, the explosion that began the universe. Now that that experiment is over, RHIC is the place to be. "What's nice about Long Island n ow, for us, is that it suddenly had a big influx of young people because of RHIC," said Dr. Pernegger, 34, an Austrian who is working on CERN's new collider, which will reclaim the title of world's most powerful after its opening, scheduled for 2005. Meanwhile, he said he is available to advise on RHIC. Christof Roland is another of the recent transplants from Switzerland to Long Island. The 30-year-old experimental physicist got his doctorate while working on the CERN accelerator, then was hired by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to work at B.N.L. on one of the RHIC detectors. "It's quite exciting," he said during a break in the conference. "In our field of science, this is where the action is." The collider is the latest and biggest tool of an international group of scientists who are trying to pry open the secrets of the early rnoments of the universe. When it is running, RHIC smashes together bunches of subatomic particles racing around its 2.4-mile underground tunnel in opposite directions at nearly the speed of light, then sifts through the resulting shower of debris for clues to the stuff of the early universe. "We really are going someplace that nobody's been before," said Barbara Jacak, an experimental physicist working on one of the detectors that sweeps up the particle debris and painstakingly analyzes it with the help of powerful computers. RHIC's allure to young scientists is not only its power, but the chance to get in on a new era of research from the very start. Dr. Drees is an accelerator physicist -- -one of those who helped design RHIC and make t work. Her husband. Axel Drees, is also a RHIC physicist and former CERN scientist. Dr. Drees convinced her husband to move to Long Island and work at RHIC three years ago while they were both at CERN. Getting the first particle collisions at RHIC last June, which paved the way for the real experiments to begin, was "the most exciting moment," she said. But though most scientists were enthusiastic about the new research at RHIC, which is 10 times more powerful than the CERN machine, some discord remained from a claim made last February by CERN scientists that a new state of matter, an extremely hot and dense mixture called quark-gluon plasma, was created during their accelerator run. B.N.L. scientists, themselves seeking the discovery, heaped skepticism on the claim, creating a rather hol and dense collision of minds. The contest was still hovering at the big-science conference on the Island last week and not without a fair amount of spin, especially during receptions, when chardonnay and merlot from Long Island vineyards flowed freely. Apostolos Panagiotou, a physicist from the University of Athens working on the CERN experiments, said CERN had seen definitive signs of "quark matter," which he said is the same thing as quark-gluon plasma. "But RHIC scientists should not feel badly about it," Dr. Panagiotou said. "They will see new signs that we cannot see." A RHIC physicist, Nu Xu, passed by just in time to hear Dr. Panagiotou's claim. "I don't buy it at all. It must be French propaganda," Dr. Xu said, scribbling out a diagram on a piece of paper and presenting it to Dr. Panagiotou as proof. "The CERN people say if you cannot model it, it must be quark-gluon plasma. I disagree." Lecturers at the conference were not as bold in laying claim to or refuting the CERN announcement. "The issue is that this is a comingout party for RHIC," said William Zajc (rhymes with kites), the leader of the experimental team on one of the RHIC detectors, who added that RHIC scientists don't feel they have to one-up the CERN results. "This is the major conference in our field in which one traditionally assesses the value of the experiments and the quality of their data. It's the first time the international community gets a look at the results from RHIC." Scientists could opt out of some lectures and take a tour of RHIC, which sometimes resembled a Disney World shuttle ride. Buses circled the dirt berm that looked like a gigantic gopher track covering the RHIC rtunnel. The buses made stops at detector stations along the ring- big boxy buildings housing immense machinery. One of the detectors, called Phenix, weighs 3,000 tons and was splayed across the room in various pieces, dwarfing the groups of physicists staring up from below. "This is impressive," said Hans Gutbrod, a physicist and director of the Subatech laboratory in France as he looked up at one of the pieces of the detector. "This is the biggest we have built right now." At the STAR detector stop, John Harris, the leader of that detector group, was on hand to answer questions and greet visiting scientists. Like most of the RHIC physicists presenting their results, he hadn't slept much over the previous two weeks. "I am no longer considered young," the 50-year-old physicist said wryly. "When I started here 10 years ago, I used to joke that I dyed my hair gray to get more respect. I don't have to do that anymore." Next door, in the STAR "counting house," where computers collect all the information passed on from the detector, 31-year-old Jens Berger flashed a picture on the computer screen that was the first sign that RHIC was working and that years of planning and building were finally over. Visitors leaned in to get a good view. "Last summer we waited day after day for 16 hours at a time," Dr. Berger said, "and finally, on the 12th of June at nine in the evening -- -I'll never, ever forget it -- -we got the first collisions. Right now this is a great place to be, right here. It's pretty exciting."