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New Mexico State University physicist elected Fellow of American Physical Society

A New Mexico State University faculty member has been accepted into an elite fellowship of scientists for his contributions to our understanding of the smallest building blocks of matter.

New Mexico State University physicist Matthias Burkardt has been elected a Fellow of the American Physical Society. (NMSU Photo by Darren Phillips)

Matthias Burkardt, a nuclear physicist who joined the NMSU faculty in 1995, has been elected a Fellow of the American Physical Society, the nation's leading physics organization. No more than one-half of 1 percent of the APS membership, which totals about 43,000, can be elected to fellowship.

Burkardt's election is in recognition of his work in the area of quantum chromodynamics (QCD), which focuses on the interaction of particles that make up protons and neutrons - the components of every atom's nucleus.

The protons and neutrons at the center of an atom are composed of even smaller particles known as quarks and gluons. Gluons provide the force that holds the quarks together.

"The interaction between quarks is extremely strong," Burkardt says. "The force between two quarks is strong enough to lift a 10-ton truck."

Yet these subatomic particles are vanishingly small - and therefore difficult to study.

"You cannot look at them with a conventional microscope because they are more than 100 million times smaller than a wave of visible light," he says.

Instead, physicists use huge particle accelerators to create collisions of subatomic particles that can yield clues about their size, shape, electrical charges and interactions. The clues are found in the angles and speed at which particles scatter, and in the energy loss of the scattered particles.

"What I have discovered is that if one studies the energy and angular distribution of high-energy photons (gamma particles) produced in these experiments, then one can learn something about the spatial distributions of the quarks and their energy at the same time," Burkardt explains. "This new knowledge will help us understand what the proton really looks like, and test our understanding of QCD theory."

Other nuclear physicists have high praise for Burkardt's work.

"Prof. Burkardt's research has added tremendous insight to our understanding of nuclear physics," wrote C.E. Hyde-Wright, a professor at Old Dominion University in Virginia. "His contributions are shaping the future experimental programs in nuclear physics."

S.J. Brodsky of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center calls him "one of the stars in nuclear chromodynamics.''

Burkardt's interpretation of some particle accelerator experiments has become an important part of the physics motivation for proposed new experiments, and also part of the scientific justification for a major upgrade of the particle accelerator at the Department of Energy's Jefferson Lab in Virginia.

Burkardt came to NMSU in 1995 on a joint appointment with the Jefferson Lab, which paid half of his salary for six years. He held the Gardiner Professorship from 2001-03 and is now a full professor in the NMSU Department of Physics.

After earning his Ph.D. at Germany's Erlangen University, Burkardt came to the United States for a Humboldt Foundation fellowship at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in 1990-91. He held a postdoctoral position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1991-93 and served as a research assistant professor at the University of Washington from 1993-95.

In the past five years alone, he has given 39 seminars and colloquia and 44 invited talks about his research at international meetings on four continents.