NATIONAL LABS: Impacting the Physical Sciences

Share This:




NATIONAL LABS: Impacting the Physical Sciences


 Brad Conrad, Director, SPS & Sigma Pi Sigma

SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma director Brad Conrad sporting the spherical cow costume. Photo courtesy of Susan White.The concept of bringing together great minds around issues or topics has a long history, with one of the more recent forms being national laboratories. Starting around the 1600s, scientific inquiry was done within private groups, often focused around well-known scholars. Academies of science and higher learning were early examples, with centers founded in London and France. Scientific institutes of research were fostered in the West beginning as far back as 1724 in St. Petersburg, with the goal of advancing newly developing fields of science, featuring scientists like Euler and Bernoulli.1

Within America, scientific inquiry before World War II was often done by individuals or through the support of philanthropists (e.g., the Carnegie Institutes and the Rockefeller Institute).2 As a result of the war, the US government started funding centers of scientific discovery to aid in the rapid advancement of technology for the war effort. The centers were formed in different ways with different goals: secret government labs working on projects such as the atomic bomb, university partnerships focused on energy, military laboratories, government agencies working on commerce, and everything in between.3 These national (or international) laboratory partnerships have become and remain focal points for collaboration within the scientific community because they have allowed for the rapid development of science and technology. Each national laboratory is unique but often has cutting-edge equipment, permanent staff scientists, collaborations with university researchers, and visiting scientists. Many of these facilities host thousands of researchers on a daily basis. The majority of people at these laboratories are not physicists, but we play a vital role in advancing solutions to our societal problems and proposing new innovations.

This issue’s features focus on different roles physicists can play at these large centers. Physicists—from undergraduates to world-renowned luminaries—can be found at these labs and others: CERN, the operator of the largest experimental particle laboratory in the world; NIST, which helped give us the scanning tunneling microscope4 and measured the distance from the earth to the moon within a few centimeters;5 Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which discovered the wreck of the Titanic, and whose staff were among the first scientists to provide advice after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Here and at other labs, physics students and scientists with a background in physics are working on cutting-edge projects involving many fields. These features help to shine a light on how you as a student of physics can impact not just physics but scientific innovations spurred by societal need, common goals, and interdisciplinary collaboration. Read on to explore how modern centers of science—national laboratories, research institutes, and academies of science—are impacting the world around us and the role they might play in your future.

1. Papers of Nevil Maskelyne: Certificate and Seal from Catherine the Great, Russia. University of Cambridge Digital Library. Cambridge Digital Library. Retrieved 15 February 2019.
2. Ida H. Reingold, Science in America, A Documentary History, 1900–1939. The Chicago History of Science and Medicine. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
3. Peter J. Westwick, The National Labs: Science in an American System, 1947–1974. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.
4. R. Young, J. Ward, and F. Scire, The topografiner: An instrument for measuring surface microtopography, Rev. Sci. Instrum. 43(7), 999 (1972).
5. M. E. Newman, To the Moon and Back (…) in 2.5 Seconds, NIST Time Capsule, National Institute of Standards and Technology. Retrieved 15 February 2019.

More from this department