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3 U. physicists receiving top honors

Pierre V. Sokolsky
Pierre V. Sokolsky

The University of Utah Physics Department is surging to the forefront of scientific research, with the American Physical Society awarding top honors to three of its scientists.

The awards to the U.'s Pierre V. Sokolsky, dean of science, and George Cassiday, both physics professors, and Z. Valy Vardeny, whose title is distinguished professor of physics, will be made in March and April during APS meetings.

With a membership of 46,000, the society is the most prestigious group in the world devoted to the study and dissemination of the knowledge of physics. The awards reflect research on detecting and deciphering cosmic rays (Sokolsky and Cassiday), and on optical properties of complex materials (Vardeny).

Sokolsky and Cassiday will split the $10,000 W.K.H. Panofsky Prize in Experimental Particle Physics. Vardeny will share the $5,000 Frank Isakson Prize for Optical Effects in Solids with research partner Professor Joseph Orenstein of the University of California, Berkeley.

The citation for the Panofsky Prize lauds the scientists "for the pioneering development of the atmospheric fluorescence technique as a method for exploring the highest energy cosmic rays." The Isakson Prize honors Vardeny and Orenstein "for pioneering contributions to the understanding of optical phenomena in complex materials including conducting polymers, semiconductors and high temperature superconductors."

"The fact that all three of us got it at the same time is neat," said Sokolsky.

According to the dean, this may be the first time that the annual Panofsky Prize was given for a particle physics experiment not carried out in an accelerator laboratory, but in open air. The award was for the cosmic ray observatories that the U. has set up, originally at Dugway Proving Ground and now in the desert of Millard County.

The award shows that cosmic ray detection "has really now become a mature, well-respected field," he said. It is a way of telling all the scientists who have worked hard for the past three decades developing the detection programs that their colleagues think the field is mature enough that they're going to be treated the same as researchers in the huge national labs, according to Sokolsky.

He did not expect the prize. "This one was out of left field. No clue as to why they gave it to us."

Sokolsky prefers to think of it as recognition to the whole community of cosmic ray scientists at the U.

Starting today, they are fine-tuning the detectors, 500 of which have been deployed by helicopter and other means to a 400-square-mile section of the western desert. Then in a month, the final 20 will be set up and the system will begin recording data. Besides the array of flat, table-like devices, three telescopic detectors are to be working at Long Ridge, Black Rock Mesa and between the Drum and Little Drum Mountains.

Powered by solar energy, the detectors will radio reports of the highest-energy cosmic rays to headquarters set up in Delta.

The three "fluorescence detectors" work by observing flashes of light as energetic particles from space ("cosmic rays") hit the atmosphere, break up and cause excited air to glow briefly.

In about a year, the $17 million Telescope Array Cosmic Ray Observatory may have enough data that discoveries can be published.

Vardeny and Orenstein have been working on optical probes of complex materials like superconducting polymers and high-temperature superconductors. "High-temperature" is relative, so far reaching 125 Kelvins (about minus 234 degrees Fahrenheit).

According to the U., among other experiments, Vardeny uses pulsed lasers to study responses of various kinds of superconducting polymer films, molecular organic crystals, single-walled nanotubes and other material. Among the elements in the research are esoteric objects called "quasi-particles."

The studies are extremely technical. But, Vardeny was quick to point out, "the applications are fantastic." They run the gamut from organic semiconductors to organic light-emitting diodes. Possible uses could include improved TV monitors and better electrical transmission. If transmission lines could be created out of the superconducting material, "there won't be any loss" of power along the lines, saving immense amounts of energy.

Vardeny said that for years, U. experts had not won the society's awards. Now the Department of Physics is collecting two major prizes. He added, "We are really excited and we plan for a big party."