Particle Man

Sam Ting is on a mission: find the other half of the universe.

Air & Space Magazine

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The 1998 shuttle mission STS-91 proved a success, save for an annoying problem with downlinking data from orbit. Although the week-long test run did not find any evidence of primordial anti-matter, it did spot anti-protons, and all the instrument’s systems worked as planned. So Ting had a green light to build the second-generation instrument, which will be attached to the outside of the space station in 2003 for a three-year experi-

ment — long enough, he hopes, for a wayward anti-particle from an anti-star to find its way to his magnet.

Like the conductor of a complex symphony, Ting manages every aspect of the project himself. His reputation as a control freak was on display at a recent meeting in a windowless room at Kennedy Space Center. Sitting front and center, he kept his speakers on a tight schedule during the brutal three-day gathering. “Avanti! Avanti!” he urged an Italian colleague who paused to answer a question. Weary physicists eager for a coffee break would make a move for the door, only to be told by a smiling Ting, “No coffee until after the next presentation!”

But Ting also knows to add levity to what often becomes a grinding nuts-and-bolts process. He bet one Italian colleague five dollars that he couldn’t set up a Powerpoint presentation with his laptop. When the Italian succeeded, Ting reluctantly paid him off, but later got revenge by hiding the same laptop, making his frantic colleague search everywhere.

His team members, which include some of the most distinguished physicists in the world, submit to Ting’s antics because they trust him to get the job done. “He’s driven purely by science,” says Roberto Battiston, a physicist at Perugia University in Italy. “Even if a technical decision means political disaster, he doesn’t care.”

Ting knows that simply being an autocrat, without a good argument to back up his judgments, would never work. “In an international collaboration, you cannot order people around,” he says. “You can only convince people, because they do not report financially to you.” Still, it’s a far cry from the multi-national committees that typically run Big Science projects, with their endless meetings and consensus building. “He’s not democratic at all,” says physicist Cristina Vannini of the National Institute of Nuclear Physics in Pisa, Italy. “Democracy doesn’t work—there must be one person who decides.”

His toughest call to date, Ting recalls, was to rule out using the Chinese-built magnet for the space station flight—a major blow for Chinese re-searchers. Instead, the team turned to a far more powerful superconducting magnet, which will be much more expensive. Ting also regrets that Russia was unable to join the program for lack of funds.

Russia is, however, involved in another anti-matter experiment, which rivals—or complements, depending on your viewpoint—the AMS. Called PAMELA, the project is slated to put a much smaller magnet into space on a free-flying satellite next year, although it likely will be delayed. Russia is supposed to provide the launch vehicle, while a small team of mostly Italian researchers is building the device. Since it has to carry its own power source, the magnet is much smaller and has a shorter lifetime than the AMS’s magnet. Ting also points out that PAMELA will only have one-thousandth the sensitivity of his experiment. But some of his collaborators say that while it lacks the sophistication of their device, the Russian instrument could provide additional evidence of anti-matter.

Ting, though, is clearly aiming to be first. He’s already pondering what a third AMS mission would look like. And he seems untroubled by the skeptics. “He doesn’t care,” says Ahlen. “He’s happiest just exploring.”

If his gamble pays off, Ting may someday have big news to report to the world. In the meantime, the particle physicists on his team are looking outward to the stars, and astrophysicists are paying closer attention to their colleagues from underground. That alone may be progress for those with the difficult job of explaining why half the universe has gone missing.

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