Theoretical physicist Michael Ramsey-Musolf recently opened the Amherst Center for Fundamental Interactions (ACFI) with the mission of joining together theoretical and experimental physics in a quest to seek the elusive answers to how the universe works.
Until now, physicists from the three frontiers of fundamental physics: Energy, intensity, and cosmic physics, have worked independently to understand the laws of nature. While this approach has yielded great insight in the past, Ramsey-Musolf says the key to finding the answers to these questions and potentially a unified physical theory is collaboration between physicists from the three disciplines.
“There isn’t another place in the world that is pulling these three frontiers together. So we are a hub where people can come together and talk about their work and help guide the direction of each other’s experiments,” he explains.
Ramsey-Musolf, whose research focuses on nuclear theory, particle theory and cosmology explains, “Our quest is to tell the story, in a real fundamental way, of how we got from the Big Bang to today. While the physics that we have today describes quite well most of what is known since the universe was a fraction of a second old until today, those critical earlier moments are illusory, and may hold the key to the unification of the theories of fundamental interaction physics today.”
Fundamental interactions are basic forces that govern how objects or particles interact. Gravity, for example, is one of the four known fundamental interactions. But there may be many interactions that have yet to be described, Ramsey-Musolf says, and many unanswered questions. Some of these questions include topics such as the origin and nature of dark matter and dark energy, the excess of visible matter over anti-matter, black holes and the quantum nature of gravity, and low-energy dynamics of quarks and gluons, elementary particles that are the building blocks of atomic nuclei.
The physicist, who is also an ordained Episcopal priest, explains, “The unanswered questions that we have come up against, from both observational and theoretical points of view, tell us that there must be more than the four known interactions, and the two theories that describe them, the General Relativity and the Standard Model. So, what are the additional forces and interactions, and what was their role in shaping the evolution of the universe since the Big Bang?”
The ACFI, located in the Lederle Graduate Research Tower, currently includes faculty, postdoctoral researchers and students from UMass Amherst and affiliated institutions, a student from Australia and an international advisory board. Director Ramsey-Musolf had the space renovated to provide a relaxed, welcoming environment that encourages interaction; a gathering point, he explains, with lots of open space and plenty of light from expansive windows. This new space also includes offices for faculty, postdoctoral researchers and international visitors.
ACFI is funded through five years of support from UMass Amherst and grants from individual scientists and other institutions. In the future it will support workshops and seminars and host international visiting students. The first workshop will be in March, jointly sponsored by the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Va., and the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Ramsey-Musolf also hope the institute can host guest faculty and begin community outreach programs as early as spring 2014.