Sam Ting is on a mission: find the other half of the universe.
- By Andrew Lawler
- Air & Space magazine, May 2001
(Page 3 of 5)
Yet Ting has made a career of proving the common wisdom wrong. His proposal in the early 1970s to search for a new kind of particle that decays into pairs of electrons and positrons was turned down by several accelerator committees; he was finally given a shot at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island. By 1974, after 18 months of experiments, he had found what he was looking for. Nearly simultaneously, Burton Richter of Stanford found the same thing, and they shared the Nobel Prize for discovering the “J-psi” particle two years later.
Ting was only 40. It was an astonishing achievement for a Chinese immigrant who had arrived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, two decades earlier with only rudimentary English and $100 in his pocket. He quickly earned scholarships that led to a physics doctorate in 1962. “He was a young man in a hurry,” recalls Lawrence Jones, who had co-chaired Ting’s thesis committee and is now an emeritus professor at the University of Michigan. Ting joined the MIT faculty in 1969, and his interest in particle physics took him frequently to CERN in Geneva. There he came to lead one of the costliest basic research projects in history: the L3 Experiment, which involved nearly 500 physicists from 40 institutions and cost $200 million for equipment alone.
By 1994, the peripatetic Ting was in search of a new challenge. The collider used for his experiment was due to be shut down to make way for a larger machine, so his work at CERN to discover yet more microparticles was soon to end. The U.S. Congress and the new Clinton administration had killed the massive Superconducting Super Collider the year before. And Ting’s proposal for a massive experiment using CERN’s next big accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, had been rejected.
That left few options in the traditional field of high-energy physics. So in early 1994, Ting called together a small band of colleagues. It was one of those rare moments when researchers have a chance to be wildly creative. “For a couple of months we sat around and gave any good idea a hearing—as well as a lot of bad ideas,” recalls Peter Fisher, an MIT collaborator. “It was an extraordinary time, sitting around with all these great minds.” Boston University’s Ahlen pushed for building a massive collector deep in a Tibetan canyon to search for gamma rays from space, while others proposed spacecraft that would carry sophisticated particle detectors.
The Tibetan idea was rejected as impractical—too many dump-truck loads needed, too many problems with theft and bureaucracy. Launching a spacecraft seemed daunting too, although the Russian government had cheap rockets for sale. Ting jetted off to Moscow to discuss a deal. He also asked Roald Sagdeev, the former head of the famed IKI space science institute in Moscow and now a physicist at the University of Maryland, to listen to the group’s ideas. Intrigued by the anti-matter proposal, Sagdeev called NASA’s Goldin, who promptly invited Ting for a visit. “It was really a summons to Washington,” says Fisher. “And not many people summon Sam Ting.”
The two men were well matched to make a deal. Ting wanted support for his mission, and Goldin desperately wanted scientific credibility for his space station, which was under fire from Congress and critics for being a $100 billion waste of time. Just one year before, the station had narrowly avoided cancellation. Goldin had a platform on which to hang a big magnet, and Ting was a big name.
Both men also have reputations as out-of-the-box thinkers impatient with bureaucracy. Ting wanted control over the project, and Goldin knew that the standard NASA science and engineering reviews would bog the proposal down and possibly kill it. For one thing, the AMS would have to get in line with other projects. Standards for flying NASA equipment were also stringent. “Mr. Goldin said, ‘You’d better go through the Department of Energy—if you go through NASA you’ll never get out,’ ” recalls Ting with a laugh.
So the easier route was to keep the anti-matter search a Department of Energy project, with NASA providing the launch, real estate on the space station, and some operational help. That way, the AMS wouldn’t compete directly with other space missions for funding. In turn, Ting promised his Department of Energy sponsors that he would get the bulk of his funding from overseas, leaving the department obligated only to pay a modest $7 million—a bargain, given the cost of most high-energy-physics experiments. For Goldin, it was a no-lose situation. “If it doesn’t work, then it’s a Department of Energy payload. If it does, then NASA will take all the credit,” jokes MIT’s Fisher.