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July 16, 2003
Professors' research focuses on what really matters
By Jack Jeffery

Groundbreaking work by two Ohio University physicists has gained national acclaim in the news media and, just as importantly, provided enriched research and educational opportunities for the University's students.

Ohio University faculty members Ken Hicks and Daniel Carman received coast-to-coast media coverage this summer from USA Today, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times for the discovery that they and a team of colleagues made of the pentaquark, a new type of particle matter.

"The discovery involves tiny particles called 'quarks,' the bricks and mortar of protons and neutrons in the atomic nucleus," USA Today reported.

What truly matters is the impact the professors' research has on their students.

"Several graduate students have been involved in the research," says Hicks, professor of physics and astronomy. "Considering the complexity and advanced nature of the work, this is the best type of training you can expect at the graduate level.

"Of further interest is the benefit it had for undergraduate students. For example, I devoted time from a class period in the spring to explain to the students the work that was being done, the makeup of protons and quarks and the new particles that were being discovered. Although the material wasn't to be on a test, the students proved to be very interested in the world around them. That's the type of curiosity and discovery we're looking to impart on our students to prepare them to be lifelong learners."

Carman, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy, says, "In many ways, this makes for a better educational experience for the students, both in the lab and in the classroom. For one thing, when students see that the faculty are involved in research that's receiving international recognition, it gives the professors added credibility. I'm fully of the opinion that Ohio University's faculty are on the same level of those at any university, and this type of research helps prove it.

"Also, this type of discovery helps to build relationships with peers and gives us access to the best theorists. Nuclear and particle physics are relatively new fields and new theories are continually being developed. This type of discovery is how theories are developed, and our students can see and experience that."

The breakthrough is particularly enlightening for the scientific world.

"This discovery tells us more about structure of matter and the universe around us," says Hicks. "There are hundreds of subatomic particles that are known. Particles, such as the proton, made of quarks seem to fit into two categories: Baryons, which are made of three quarks, and so-called mesons, which are made of two quarks. Everything in the last 40 years fit into these two categories, until now. Well, this particle is a marriage of both."

Hicks took part in the experiment to discover the pentaquarks and an effort to confirm the results at the U.S. Department of Energy's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Virginia.

As for when practical applications will be realized, "probably not in my lifetime," Hicks says. "It's similar to when electrons were discovered. At that time, people were reading by candlelight, so the early discoveries concerning electricity seemed remote to anyone living in that time. We don't know tomorrow's applications of today's discoveries."

A team of Japanese researchers led by Takashi Nakano, who first found their existence, originally discovered the pentaquarks in 2002. Hicks and Carman, along with their colleagues, have been working at the Jefferson Laboratory to confirm the existence of pentaquarks since October.

Jack Jeffery is a media specialist for University Communications and Marketing

 

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