Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 23  |  Friday, October 20, 2000  |  Number 18
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Famous in Sicily

Kurt Riesselmann

When Joe Formaggio, a physics graduate student at Columbia University, visited his Italian grandparents after attending a physics summer school in Sicily, he found he had become a legend in his own homeland.

"Joe, we heard your name on TV," his grandparents told him. "They said that you won the Best Student award!"

Antonio Zichichi and Joe Formaggio (right) A group of physicists, including several Nobel Prize winners, voted Joe the best student of the 38th International School of Subnuclear Physics in Erice, Sicily. The school featured ten days of morning lectures by scientists from around the world. In the afternoon, students discussed the morning topics with the lecturers, and gave presentations of their own research results.

"The Best Student nomination is based on your participation in the discussion groups," said Joe. Though he was one of the more active participants in the Q & A sessions, he didn't expect to receive the prize, which is honored with one million lira, about 500 dollars.

Winning a physics award is usually not enough to make the evening news. In Sicily, physicist Antonino Zichichi added the extra magic. He is the director of the Ettore Majorana Centre in Erice and frequently appears on TV. Physicists joke that, in Sicily, he is more famous than the Pope. So, when Zichichi informed the media that a young American physicist from an Italian family had won the Best Student award, it instantly became a hot item.

"Watching TV that night, my grandparents heard about a meeting hosted by Zichichi," Joe said. "Then they learned that I won an award."

Joe's minute of fame didn't stop there.

"A couple of days later, a reporter from a local radio station interviewed me for about 20 minutes," Joe added. "Fortunately, my Italian is still good enough." Joe lived in Italy from ages 5 to 11, when his parents returned for an extended stay.

Winning the Best Student award is the highlight of Joe's blossoming physics career, which began five years ago when he entered graduate school.

"Joe is an amazing student," said Mike Shaevitz, Fermilab's Associate Director of Research, who is on a leave of absence from a physics professorship at Columbia University. "I am Joe's adviser for his work on the NuTeV experiment here at Fermilab. Joe has done some great work on NuTeV's decay channel detector and the analysis of the resulting data."

The NuTeV collaboration, which carried out its final measurements in January 2000, has investigated high-energy neutrino-nucleon scattering processes. Joe joined the NuTeV experiment in 1996 when it had just begin recording data. He worked on several data analysis projects. Today, he is considered one of NuTeV's experts in this area. His excellent work ensured him the trip to Erice.

One of Joe's projects focused on the detection of new particles, such as heavy neutrinos. At Erice, he gave a presentation of his latest results.

"Joe has worked on many different things," said Janet Conrad, physics professor at Columbia University. "Joe even has a short publication in the area of theoretical physics."

Conrad works with Joe on both the NuTeV and the new MiniBooNe experiment, a neutrino detector that is currently under construction.

Two other young scientists working on experiments at Fermilab also earned trips to Erice: Jim Graham and Volker B¸scher. Graham is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. At Erice, he gave an award-winning presentation on his analysis of matter-antimatter asymmetries, observed by the KTeV experiment.

"Around 60 graduate students and young postdocs attended the meeting," said B¸scher, a DZero postdoc at the University of Rochester. Both experimenters and theorists were among the participants.

The Erice school featured lectures on a variety of particle physics topics, including such hot research items as superstrings and the Higgs particlesó all presented by some of the world's best high-energy physicists, including 1999 Nobel Laureate Gerardus ët Hooft of the Netherlands, whose signature graces the "Best Student" certificate. Presentation of the latest results from particle physics experiments around the world concluded the program.

"I don't know of any other particle physics school that has so many renowned lecturers," B¸scher remarked. He appreciated that the school set the stage for many one-on-one discussions with the lecturers during lunch hours and coffee breaks.

Learning and discussing particle physics is the top priority of the Erice school. Meeting fellow students and future colleagues--and potential employers--is an extra benefit for the young physicists.

"It was great to hear from other participants what it's like to be a graduate student in France, Denmark, Englandómany places around the world," Joe said.

Now Joe is back in New York. He plans to graduate next summer, the next highlight of his career. He doesn't expect a reporter to call any time soon. Until then, his Best Student certificate reminds him of his first moment of fame.


last modified 10/20/2000   email Fermilab