Thomas Ferbel remembered as inspiring mentor and distinguished particle physicist : NewsCenter

March 24, 2022

The longtime Rochester physics professor studied the building blocks of matter and the nature of quarks.

Thomas Ferbel. (Photo by the University of Rochester)

Thomas Ferbel, Professor of Physics at the University of Rochester from 1965 to 2008, will be remembered for mentoring students and working with colleagues to understand the fundamentals of subatomic particles, including the discovery of the elusive “top quark” . Ferbel died on March 13 at the age of 84.

Aside from being an active member of the high-energy physics community from the start, “Tom was an impeccable gentleman, a great person with a simple heart, a wonderful mentor to students and young faculty alike, and genuinely concerned for the well-being of both of the students as well as the Institute of Physics and Astronomy“, says Ashok Dasa physics professor in Rochester who co-authored the popular textbook Introduction to nuclear and particle physics with Ferbel. The book has been translated into several languages ​​and is used worldwide.

Ferbel was born in Poland just before the start of World War II. He and his family were exiled to a Russian gulag and camp for displaced persons in Stuttgart, Germany before immigrating to the United States at the age of 12. He received his PhD in experimental particle physics from Yale University in 1963.

“I fell in love with chemistry in high school, but I finally realized in college that what I love about chemistry is quantum mechanics,” Ferbel said in a June 2020 interview with the American Institute of Physics.

After working as a postdoctoral fellow at Yale, Ferbel joined the faculty at Rochester in 1965.

The “Bubble Chamber Research Group”

“We had a strong group in the fields of condensed matter, particle theory and experiments,” Ferbel said of Rochester at the time. “It was an exciting place.”

Research into subnuclear physics was in its infancy when Ferbel entered the field; At the time, a leading technique in high-energy physics was the use of a bubble chamber — a vessel filled with a superheated liquid such as hydrogen — to detect electrically charged particles.

Adrian Melissinosa physics professor emeritus, recalls “encouraging Tom to come to Rochester because we wanted to start a ‘bubble chamber’ group, which was one of the leading techniques in high-energy physics at the time.”

The ‘bubble chamber research group’ they founded in Rochester was dedicated to understanding the forces involved in high-energy physics, including the elusive nature of quarks. Quarks make up the protons and neutrons in atoms and come in six different “flavors” or types. Today, researchers understand that quarks are the basic building blocks of matter, although scientists initially believed these particles were mathematical constructs used to classify the unstable states of matter that bubble chambers revealed.

A new era in high-energy physics

Thomas Ferbel, in his own words

In 2020, Ferbel spoke about his life and career as a physicist as part of the American Institute of Physics’ Oral History Project.

In the early 1970s, Ferbel became part of the DZero Collider Experiment, an international collaboration of scientists at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, investigating the fundamental nature of matter. In 1995 he played a role in one of the most important discoveries in the field of high-energy physics: confirming the existence of the elusive top quark, the heaviest of all observed subatomic particles.

“With this discovery of the top quark, our overall picture of matter fits together wonderfully,” said Ferbel at the time.

Ferbel spent the rest of his career finding ways to learn more about the top quark. In 2004 he and members of his research group, including doctoral students at the time Juan Estrada ’02 (PhD) and Maria Florencia Canelli ’03 (PhD), used methods and calculations to measure the top quark with unprecedented precision. The mass of the top quark has implications for determining the composition of dark matter, which makes up 90 percent of the universe, and for indirectly determining the mass of the Higgs boson, also known as the “god particle,” which is theoretically designed to mass .

The revision of the top quark mass began as a thesis for Estrada, now a scientist at Fermilab.

“Tom was my supervisor and he was a huge influence on me,” says Estrada, who met Ferbel in Argentina shortly after Estrada completed his undergraduate degree. “He introduced me to the field of high-energy physics, which became my field of research. He was the best advisor imaginable and helped me navigate life in the US, at the University of Rochester and at Fermilab.”

In 2005, Canelli, who is now a professor of physics at the University of Zurich, was awarded American Physical Society Tanaka Dissertation Award in Experimental Particle Physics for the research she conducted as part of DZero.

“Tom was an example of being a good collaborator on a big experiment,” says Canelli. “Remarkably,” she adds, “Tom was one of the few scientists to read, review, and carefully edit the text of hundreds of articles at DZero and CMS (the Compact Muon Solenoid experiment at CERN) prior to submission.”

Leon Lederman, Tom Ferbel and Tom's wife Barbara are seated at a table.

Tom Ferbel (centre), his wife Barbara (right) and Leon Lederman (left), who received the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physics for research into neutrinos, at a 1999 ceremony for Adrian Melissinos, Professor Emeritus of Physics. (Photo by University of Rochester / Department of Physics and Astronomy)

A lasting legacy

In 1980, Ferbel founded a biennial Advanced Study Institute (ASI) on techniques and concepts in high-energy physics. The NATO-funded program brought together scientists from the United States and Europe to study concepts in the field of high-energy physics. Ferbel was the scientific director of the program for 20 years.

He was a Fellow of the American Physical Society and Secretary and Treasurer of the Division of Particles and Fields; and Chairman of the Committee for the International Freedom of Scientists. His numerous awards included an Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship, a John S. Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Alexander von Humboldt Prize.

Ferbel has published more than 300 articles in experimental particle physics, edited numerous textbooks and served on the editorial board of several journals. He had visiting stints at Fermilab and the Max Planck Institute and was a visiting professor at the University of Paris Sud in France, the University of Mainz and the University of Freiburg in Germany, and the University of Maryland. From 2004 to 2008 he was Manager of the US Operations Program for the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. The LHC is the world’s largest and most energetic particle accelerator.

Associate Dean of Graduate Studies at the School of Arts & Sciences from 1989 to 1991, he retired from teaching in 2008 after having supervised numerous graduate students and postdocs for 43 years.

Ferbel also taught students, including Steven Chu in ’70, the 1997 Nobel Prize winner, whom Ferbel recalled often staying after classes to discuss physics with him.

Ferbel is survived by his wife Barbara; son, Pedro Ferbel-Azcarate; and daughter, Natalie Ferbel.

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tags: Arts and Sciences, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Obituary, Thomas Ferbel

category: Science & Technology

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