A Year in the Life in Physics

by John Campbell

When I chose physics as a major in college, I wasn’t thinking about the paths it might open up for me. I chose it because the material was tough, it allowed me to exercise my fondness for mathematics, and I enjoyed learning about the universe at its most basic level. Eight years later I find myself working on a PhD in nuclear physics, and while all of those benefits are still there, more importantly it has changed the shape of my life and taken me places I wouldn’t have expected otherwise.

Because I can’t do anything the way I’m supposed to, I’ve chosen not to write about A Day in the Life of this graduate student, but to reflect on the past year and some of the great places I’ve gone and experiences I’ve had.

August 2012 – Quark Matter

There are many conferences in the field of nuclear physics, and Quark Matter is the largest. (A quark is a basic building block of nuclear matter. You and everyone you know is made up mostly of quarks.) Last year it was held in a city that’s close to my heart, Washington DC.

I got to meet ‘celebrities’ in the field, well renowned nuclear physicists whom I had previously only known as names at the tops of papers I’d read. I also presented a poster I had designed that explained the motivations of my research and what progress I had made. This involved giving short explanations and answering questions as conference attendees floated around the room browsing mine and all the other posters. It was a great first experience in talking to strangers about my work.  I’m definitely looking forward to next year’s Quark Matter in Germany.

October 2012 – Hot Quarks

Hot Quarks is a very different conference from Quark Matter. It’s much smaller, aimed at giving young scientists in the field a chance to meet each other and communicate without established, well-known physicists looking over their shoulders. It was held in Puerto Rico, and at a time when my native Columbus was just beginning to move from a brisk Autumn to an earnest Winter, the island sun was a welcome change of pace.

It was here that I gave my first prepared talk about my work. There were only about 50 people attending the conference, and the smaller audience and more familiar atmosphere meant I wasn’t very nervous. I got some good feedback and suggestions about what I had done, and met a few other scientists who had projects that were similar to mine.

A week of listening to talks and participating in conference activities can get a little draining, so conference planners usually break up the time with a few fun activities. For instance, we were given a personal tour of the Arecibo Observatory, complete with behind-the-scenes access and some face time with the director. Arecibo is the world’s largest radio telescope, and has been doing amazing science for over fifty years now.

Aricebo is that world’s largest radio telescope. You may have seen it featured in the James Bond movie GoldenEye or the film adaptation of Carl Sagan’s classic Contact.

You may have seen Aricebo featured in the James Bond movie GoldenEye or the film adaptation of Carl Sagan’s classic Contact.

April 2013 – RHIC

In April I traveled to the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) on Long Island to help run our detector. RHIC accelerates bits of nuclear matter to speeds very close to the speed of light and then smashes them together. The hope is that in studying these high energy collisions we’ll see signatures of how quarks (remember those?) behave and interact.

The three-story STAR detector, where we smash atomic nuclei together to recreate the conditions of the universe just microseconds after the Big Bang. You wouldn’t want to be standing on that scaffolding when they turn the beam on!

The three-story STAR detector, where we smash atomic nuclei together to recreate the conditions of the universe just microseconds after the Big Bang. You wouldn’t want to be standing on that scaffolding when they turn the beam on!

There are two detectors operating at RHIC; I work on the STAR detector (Solenoidal Tracker at RHIC). Instead of being operated by dedicated technicians, scientists in the STAR collaboration (often graduate students and post-docs) take turns handling the day-to-day operations of the detector. You can check out Ken Patton’s post to understand what these shifts are like.  He and I work on vastly different experiments, but the data-taking shifts are a pretty similar experience.

I was training to be the Shift Leader, the person that coordinates the other crew members and communicates with the main RHIC control room. However, at the last minute the actual Shift Leader was called away in an emergency.  As the trainee it was up to me to step in and lead the team, though at this point I had only had one day of training instead of the usual eight.

Here I was–completely unprepared–leading a team of my peers in operating one of the most advanced machines in history to learn about the basic building blocks of matter. This is what made all my work at school worthwhile, this is why I took all those calculus classes. (I’m joking of course; the sheer joy of knowing calculus is why you take calculus classes.)

July 2013 – Stony Brook University

Last month I traveled back to Long Island, but this time to Stony Brook University for the National Nuclear Physics Summer School. This summer school did not have any classroom component or tests at the end. It consisted of four lectures a day, each on a different topic. In between lectures we had ample time to talk about science, meet new people in the field, or just explore the campus.

More than anything else, I came away with a renewed perspective on how diverse the field of nuclear physics is. I usually tell people I’m a ‘nuclear physicist’, but more specifically I study ‘ultrarelativistic heavy-ion collisions’, and in my day-to-day work everyone I interact with does the same. It can be easy to forget that nuclear physics encompasses everything from accelerator physics to medical imaging (X-Ray and MRI machines) to the fusion happening in the sun and other stars. (Nuclear Astrophysics, by the way, is probably the second coolest sounding science subfield I’ve ever heard of, beaten out only by Asteroseismology. Sexy!)

Physics is a breathtakingly rich subject, and the everyday study of the same has been incredibly rewarding. But it is important to remember that for a graduate student like myself, physics is not just a subject of study, but an aspect of my life that takes me to new places and gives me new experiences. More than having published a few papers or being able to solve problems in a textbook, physics has become a part of my culture and personal history. I don’t know what course my life will take after I leave grad school, but I look forward to a life of years as exciting and diverse as the last one.


About John Campbell


I’m originally a Floridian, and moved to Columbus four years ago to pursue a physics PhD at OSU. Before studying nuclear physics, I meandered through nano-photonics (studying ultrasmall light circuits) and theoretical astrophysics. When I’m not traveling, I write computer code to analyze the mountains of data we take, perform physics outreach, and help with the calibration efforts that keep our detector running smoothly. In my off time I play guitar, juggle, climb trees, and start conversations with strangers.