White House honors young quantum theoretician

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By Roger Snodgrass

Ivan Vitev knew he had been nominated for a Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers because he was asked to provide curriculum vitae very quickly for the review process.

Two months later, when the first in a staggered list of awards was announced, he didn’t see his name and assumed that he had not been selected.

In fact, background checks were still going on, so it was another couple of months before the Los Alamos National Laboratory physicist heard that he had in fact won one of the most prestigious awards for young scientists in the country.

Various universities and federal agencies, including the Department of Energy, nominate outstanding candidates and then commit to support their research for up to five years.

“These extraordinarily gifted young scientists and engineers represent the best in our country,” President Obama said in a White House announcement. “With their talent, creativity and dedication, I am confident that they will lead their field in new breakthroughs and discoveries and help us use science and technology to lift up our nation and the world.”

“I am a theorist,” Vitev said, in a telephone interview Tuesday. “I work in quantum chromodynamics - the theory of strong interactions in high energy nuclear reactions.”

Currently, the flagship facility for this kind of research is at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, N.Y. - the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC).

“The idea behind this program, actively supported since its inception by the Nobel laureate T.D. Lee, is to try to create a new state of matter by colliding nuclei at ultra-relativistic energies,” Vitev said.

In theory this can produce quark-gluon plasma, a type of matter that is thought to have existed in the first fractions of a second after the Big Bang.

Vitev’s work involves a process of performing analytical calculations for the nuclear collisions at Brookhaven, extracting the relevant theoretical implications and then carrying out numerical simulations toward increasingly refined and powerful predictions.

“I’ve performed calculations which give accurate descriptions of the actual experimental measurements,” he said. “It a complex, many-body system where many physics effects can arise.”

Although RHIC at Brookhaven is a state-of-the-art machine currently, Vitev has his eyes on the next experimental platform, the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva on the border between France and Switzerland. The LHC, which will be the world’s highest energy collider, has been under repair since last September, and after a new delay announced Tuesday, is not expected to be operating until November.

“It’s a natural transition,” said Vitev, who is leading a theoretical effort to determine energy loss in jets of high-energy particles at the LHC.

“We have to insure there is experimental involvement. We’ve been trying to get into LHC physics for quite awhile. It would be beneficial to the lab and it would make sense not to miss this chance.”

He said there would be an official reception for the researchers at the White House in the fall.

Vitev joined Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2004 as a J. Robert Oppenheimer Postdoctoral Fellow.