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The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


    An Interview with Gene Sprouse

    Professor Gene D. Sprouse, of the Physics Department at Stony Brook University, will be succeeding Dr. Martin Blume, as Editor-in-Chief of the American Physical Society’s Physical Review series, a set of physics journals. The American Physical Society (APS) consists of 45,000 members and is the largest body of physicists worldwide. Prof. Sprouse will be heading the Ridge branch in New York starting this March for a five-year appointment.

    Statesman: How long have you been a member of the Society?

    Sprouse: Ever since graduate school. Most active physicists are members of the American Physical Society.

    Statesman: Do you write for them on a regular basis?

    Sprouse: The APS journals are for publication of your research, and I have had about 40 papers published in Physical Review or Physical Review Letters.

    Statesman: Could you talk a little bit more about your research on francium?

    Sprouse: Francium is the rarest of the naturally occurring elements. It is very difficult to study because it has no stable isotopes, and there is only about one ounce of it on the whole earth!

    In 1995, Professor [Luis A.] Orozco and I led a team that developed a way in which we could create francium with the accelerators in the basement of the Physics building, and before it decays in about three minutes, we transfer it into a magneto-optical trap (MOT). Using laser beams, we have trapped about a million atoms in a little ball about a millimeter in diameter, and once we have the atoms there, we shine other laser beams on them to excite the atoms to study their properties. Francium is interesting because it’s the simplest heavy atom, and its properties can be calculated to very high precision. It’s an atom that you can use to study the fundamental forces of nature.

    Statesman: The four forces you talked about [in PHY 141]?

    Sprouse: Yes, in particular the weak force. An atom is held together by electrical charges. But there is also a weak force between electrons and quarks in the nucleus. We want to eventually do an experiment to use the francium atom to measure the strength of that force. It is a very difficult experiment because the weak force is much weaker than electromagnetism, and difficult to detect. Such an experiment was done with cesium, but in francium it will be 13 times bigger, so, it will be easier to measure.

    Statesman: Could you talk a little bit more about the [Editor-in-Chief] job?

    Sprouse: The APS journals are Physical Review, Physical Review Letters and Reviews of Modern Physics. These are the best physics Journals in the world. The Editor-in-Chief doesn’t actually edit the journals. There is a large staff of people that manage these journals very effectively, organizing the whole process of getting the manuscripts, sending the papers to referees to verify the quality of the research, and publishing the journals on the web and in print. My job will be to work with these people and see that everything works well and runs smoothly. The other part of the job is that the Editor-in-Chief, the Treasurer and the Executive Officer are the three executives who co-manage all of the programs of the American Physical Society.

    Statesman: What are some of your short- and long-term goals when you take up the position?

    Sprouse: The Physical Review has a very long history, it was started in 1893 and throughout its many years, it has always printed its journals on paper. However, in the last ten years, there has been a transition to have all of the journal material also be electronically accessible. As a result of this, instead of running down the hall to the library to look up a paper, we can read any Phys. Rev. paper on our computers, including the first ones from 1893! Because the University subscribes to these journals, everyone at the University, including students, has access electronically. Now that this has been started, and electronic delivery of the journals is becoming the norm at most Universities, there is now a possibility to enhance the content available in articles with videos, interviews with authors, and other information. My job will be to help chart this course of new innovations for the journals, while maintaining and improving the quality and prestige of the journals that have been built over the last 114 years. Another challenge is that many journals are now considering how to make all of the scientific literature freely available to anybody who wants to read it. This is a noble goal, but the problem is how to pay for the costs associated with getting the journals together. Presently, journals are funded by subscriptions paid by institutional libraries. If we have freely-available journals, there is a problem of how to pay the costs.

    Statesman: And there are no other ways to fund the journal?

    Sprouse: Either the reader pays as it is now, or the author or someone else pays!

    Statesman: Why did you choose this position if it meant giving up teaching?

    Sprouse: I have been teaching at Stony Brook for 36 years, and I enjoy it very much. I also do research using the particle accelerators in the basement: the Van de Graaff, and the Superconducting LINAC, which I helped construct 25 years ago.

    Statesman: Do the two accelerators serve different purposes?

    Sprouse: Well, I should show you! I will take the [PHY 141] class down to see them sometime. The Van de Graaff starts the particles moving and gives them some energy, but if we want higher energy beams, then we use the LINAC to boost the energy of the particles that come from the Van de Graff. The LINAC has been running very well for the last 25 years, but it’s now an old machine, and is beginning to be difficult to keep going. The even older Van de Graaff is simpler to operate and still runs well, but does not have enough energy to make Francium. We are going to stop running the LINAC in November, but other collaborators in the Fr program will continue the work at an accelerator in Vancouver. The Van de Graaff will continue to run, probably for educational uses.

    Statesman: Who will be overseeing the accelerator here?

    Sprouse: We’re not sure yet who will be taking over. I think I never finished your question about teaching. I have really enjoyed my teaching, especially teaching Honors Physics. The students are really motivated, and they work hard. We have been using a lot of modern teaching methods, and in general the students like them.

    Statesman: Yet, you won’t be teaching?

    Sprouse: Well, it’s partly the timing of the closing of the accelerator. I have two graduate students who are just finishing, so the timing was really perfect for me to look at other possibilities. The APS opportunity came up, and I’m excited about the new challenges it presents.

    Statesman: How are you acclimating yourself to the new position?

    Sprouse: I have been attending a few meetings to learn about the job and to get to know the people I will be working with. In January, I will start full time at APS, but not be the Editor-in-Chief until March 1, so I have five or six weeks to work closely with the current Editor-in-Chief while I learn more about the job.

    Statesman: What kind of advice would give to someone who wants to work their way to a position like this?

    Sprouse: When I was in graduate school, I didn’t expect that someday I would become Editor-in-Chief, and it just sort of happened. If your goal from the beginning is to be Editor-in-Chief, you should probably begin working at one of the journals and work your way up. Previous editors have done that.

    Statesman: But you were a faculty member?

    Sprouse: Because it is largely an administrative job, the fact that I had been the chair of the department [of Physics] gave me some experience in managing an academic enterprise. In some sense, the Editor-in-Chief is managing an academic enterprise, but it also includes many other things that I will have to learn, and that is what makes the job an interesting and exciting new challenge for me.

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