Recently, the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation tasked two working groups with developing recommendations reflecting the priorities of the nuclear and particle physics communities; William & Mary helped shape both reports. 

W&M theoretical physicists Jozef Dudek and Christopher Monahan respectively served on ad-hoc subcommittees of the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee and of the High Energy Physics Advisory Panel. 

A New Era of Discovery: The 2023 Long Range Plan for Nuclear Science” was published in fall 2023; the working group also included Jefferson Lab’s Theory Center Director Jianwei Qiu, who serves as Governor’s Distinguished CEBAF Professor at William & Mary. A draft version of “Exploring the Quantum Universe: Pathways to Innovation and Discovery in Particle Physics” was published by the Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel, or P5, in December 2023; the final version is forthcoming.

Associate professor of Physics Jozef Dudek
Associate Professor Jozef Dudek.

Representing two distinct but partly overlapping communities, the two committees advanced recommendations on research and funding priorities, producing scientifically rigorous documents that could be easy to read for federal staffers and policymakers.

“Chris and I are used to teaching and explaining things,” said Dudek, an associate professor at William & Mary and a staff scientist at Jefferson Lab in Newport News.

A good teacher of physics, he remarked, is also a good communicator of physics – demonstrating the full impact of the university’s teaching excellence, corroborated by several national rankings.  

“The primary motivation for everything we do is understanding the universe,” he continued. “It’s about understanding how quarks and gluons stick together to produce the atomic nucleus and other subatomic particles.”

“When two protons travelling near the speed of light collide, it is the quarks and gluons inside the protons that are hitting each other,” said Monahan, an assistant professor at William & Mary. “We have to understand what is going on inside the protons in order to interpret the results of what happens afterwards.” 

Both reports strongly recommend investing in workforce development and retention, in full alignment with the W&M focus on careers. All physics majors at William & Mary complete a senior or honors research project; undergraduate and graduate students can pursue different research opportunities – for example, at Jefferson Lab, a longtime partner of the university.

William & Mary is also a top feeder for science and engineering doctorates across the country; the Long Range Plan explicitly addresses graduate students’ needs. As Dudek explained, encouraging agencies to better fund graduate students’ stipends targets a retention problem that particularly affects early-career scientists from socioeconomically disadvantaged groups.

Expanding access to physics is crucial. And theory, as Monahan explained, is key to making progress, both in physics and science at large.

Christopher Monahan
Assistant Professor Christopher Monahan.

“The world requires scientifically literate citizens, and particle physics is an excellent way to prepare people with a wide range of skills and expertise,” he said. “Having an educated and scientifically literate citizenry is a direct benefit that physics provides.”

The work of theorists allows to interpret discrepancies between our current understanding of fundamental particles – the Standard Model – and experimental data from facilities such as the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, which discovered the Higgs boson in 2012 with critical contribution from the U.S. community.

The P5 report outlines recommendations for physics research outside the Standard Model, which doesn’t currently explain the gravitational force or dark matter – a large component of the universe’s mass whose composition remains unknown.

Completing the High Luminosity Large Hadron Collider, an update to the Geneva LHC, is among the highest priorities from the P5 report. This facility will allow to study the properties of the Higgs boson, search for evidence of new particles and determine the nature of the dark matter.

Another high priority from the P5 report is completing the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment, an international endeavor aiming to unlock the mysteries of neutrinos, in which the W&M Experimental High Energy Physics group is playing a critical role.  

The Long Range Plan, too, makes the case for constructing new experiments and expediting completion of a large new facility: the Electron-Ion Collider at Brookhaven Lab.

“Production of the heavier elements presumably happen in stars, but in many cases we don’t fully understand the nuclear processes,” said Dudek. “Answering these kinds of questions requires investments in experimental facilities and support for scientists to interpret the data.”

Dudek mentioned medical science developments, such as PET scans, as examples of societal benefits from nuclear and particle physics research; at the same time, he highlighted curiosity as a fundamental driving force.

“I don’t know if there’s anything more fundamental than asking why there are stars and planets and why there is life on the planets,” he said. “Well, you can’t have any of those things if you don’t have heavy elements, and you can’t have heavy elements if you don’t have light elements. And you can’t have light elements if you don’t have protons and neutrons, and the quarks and gluons they are built from.”

, Senior Research Writer