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Physics professor receives NMSU's highest faculty award

Matthias Burkardt, professor of physics at New Mexico State University, has been selected to receive the university's highest faculty award, the Westhafer Award for Excellence in Research and Creative Activity.



Matthias Burkardt, professor of physics at New Mexico State University, has been selected to receive the university's highest faculty award, the Westhafer Award for Excellence in Research and Creative Activity. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)


Burkardt will be presented the award at 3 p.m. Friday, April 28, at a ceremony in the Conroy Honors Center Commons Area. A reception will precede the ceremony at 2:30 p.m.

Burkardt will present "Visualizing Quarks," based on his internationally recognized nuclear physics research.

"Matthias has a long record of notable accomplishments in particle and nuclear physics," says Gary Kyle, head of the NMSU Physics Department, who nominated Burkardt for the award. "He has become one of the leading figures in the field of hadronic physics."

After earning his Ph.D. at Germany's Erlangen University, Burkardt came to the United States with a Humboldt Foundation fellowship to the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in 1990-91. He held postdoctoral positions at MIT from 1991-93 and at the University of Washington from 1993-95. In 1995 he joined the faculty at NMSU on a joint appointment with the Jefferson Lab, which paid half of his salary for six years.

Burkardt held the Gardiner Professorship from 2001-03 and in December 2004 he was 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 a fellowship. Burkardt's election as an APS fellow was in recognition of his work in the area of quantum chromodynamics, 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. 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 rays) produced in these experiments, then one can learn something about the spatial distributions of the energy of quarks," Burkardt explains. "This new knowledge will help us understand what the proton really looks like, and test our understanding of the theory that describes subatomic particles."

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

John Negele, a leading physics researcher at MIT, says "Burkardt's work has inspired an entirely new discipline in nuclear physics, which is being vigorously explored by many researchers worldwide."

Workshops and seminars are being held all over the world to discuss his idea and his papers have generated more than 1,800 citations.

The Westhafer Award is named for Robert L. Westhafer, an NMSU professor of mathematics, who died in 1957. The award, which includes a $3,000 cash prize, has been presented each year since 1958. It is presented in alternate years for excellence in teaching and excellence in research and creative activity.