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Clarkson University speaker says physics still matters

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POTSDAM — Clarkson University welcomed to campus last week an expert who is involved with analyzing the scientific aspects of weapons of mass destruction and other possible threats to national security, among other tasks.

William H. Goldstein, the deputy director for science and technology at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, gave a presentation Friday on “Does Physics Still Matter?”

The lecture, part of Clarkson’s New Horizons in Engineering Distinguished Lectureship series, focuses on improving the understanding of important issues facing engineering and society in the 21st century.

“Physics actually is probably most recently represented in the Nobel Prize going to the discovery of the Higgs particle. I think it’s fair for people to wonder, ‘How does it matter to me?’ that this particle was discovered.”

Mr. Goldstein noted that much of his work entails national security applications in science. He explained ways in which modern frontier physics frequently finds its way into solving challenges related to national security.

“We find that for example, many of those problems, in particular in nuclear nonproliferation, counterterrorism, involve very hard detection problems; the problem of detecting very, very small signals in very, very complex backgrounds,” Mr. Goldstein said. “Typically the things that you’re looking for are almost invisible. You’re looking for them in environments that are tremendously cluttered. This problem generically is very much the same as is faced in experimental physics, where smaller and smaller signals, weaker and weaker interactions are being looked for in huge, huge amounts of data that are produced for example in the very, very dirty collisions that take place in particle colliders.”

He added that the research and investigations he is involved with can sometimes involve the detection of movement and transportation of nuclear materials. These include uranium, plutonium and other dangers of both nuclear and biological terrorism.

At the California laboratory, Mr. Goldstein’s main research interests have been in computational modeling of highly charged ions, atomic spectroscopy and radiative processes in plasmas. He has been involved with the laboratory for 27 years.

Mr. Goldstein, who received his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Columbia University, said that labs across the country have an extensive list of capabilities when it comes to tracking down potential issues of national security.

“The national labs in the U.S. actually have a range of capabilities for both detecting and handling chemical weapons that can be brought to bear on the challenge of finding and destroying the stockpiles that might be in Syria,” he said.

He also discussed what his laboratory on the west coast is typically known for.

“I would say we have two flagship capabilities of the lab. One is we’re very, very well known for high performance computing and have been in a leading position in the country in developing the largest and very fastest computers. ... Right now, the Sequoia computer at the lab is ranked as the third fastest in the world. Actually the fastest computer in the world is now in China,” Mr. Goldstein said.

“The other major facility at the lab is the National Ignition Facility. It’s the largest, most powerful laser in the world. It is capable of delivering two mega joules of laser energy to very, very small targets and in doing so, creates conditions in matter that previously could only be created in nuclear explosions. So it’s a way that allows us to study the physics that goes on in nuclear explosions without doing the tests.”

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