Alumni Profile - Scott Wilburn at Los Alamos National Laboratory

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

As a graduate student at TUNL, Scott Wilburn '93 made precision measurements with neutrons in order to study the interactions of polarized neutrons and polarized protons. Today, he’s using similar techniques at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, but with lower-energy neutrons, and with a different goal.

“I’m using the neutron as a laboratory to look for new physics beyond the standard model,” he says. “The neutron decay process is interesting to look at because you can do both very precise measurements and very precise calculations from the physics we know. If there are particles or forces we don’t know about, it would cause a discrepancy between the calculations and the experiment. Very heavy particles that have never been produced in an accelerator can have very small effects on these processes.” He and his colleagues use either cold neutron beams or bottled ultracold neutrons in their experiments.

It’s a different approach to the same question being explored by some of the physicists working at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (click here to read about the Duke ATLAS team at LHC). “At the LHC,” Wilburn says, “they try to produce enough energy to make these particles directly, and we try to do very precise experiments to see subtle effects of these particles on low-energy experiments.”

Wilburn earned his PhD at Duke in 1993, and stayed on for a few years as a research assistant. In 1996, he came to Los Alamos, where he is now the leader of the subatomic physics group. In October, he was named the Los Alamos program manager for the DOE office of nuclear physics. As the program manager, he receives and distributes money from DOE, and helps direct the research it funds. “We’re primarily a nuclear weapons lab, and the part of DOE that funds TUNL also gives Los Alamos money to do basic nuclear physics research,” Wilburn says.

As the group leader for subatomic physics, he manages about 40 full-time scientists plus another couple dozen post-docs and students. “This is the group that does basic nuclear physics research and applies nuclear physics techniques to important national problems,” he says. “We do charged particle radiography for the nuclear weapons program and we develop techniques to detect when someone is trying to smuggle a nuclear weapon into the country.”

At Los Alamos, Wilburn is one of many TUNL alums—Wilburn estimates there are about 20. In fact, he and his wife Dianne are planning a TUNL get-together at Los Alamos in January.