Matt Foster, a physics Ph.D. student at the University of Missouri-Rolla, is one of nearly 60 Ph.D. students across the country chosen to attend a week-long conference of winners of the Nobel Prize in physics.
The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the National Science Foundation Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences, and Oak Ridge Associated Universities. It is open to graduate students in their second or third year of work toward a Ph.D. These students’ advisors must be involved in research funded either by DOE or NSF to be considered.
Since 1951, Nobel laureates in chemistry, physics and physiology/medicine have convened annually in Lindau, Germany, to hold open and informal meetings with students and young researchers. This year’s conference focuses on physics.
Foster received a bachelor of science degree in physics from UMR in 2002. He hopes to complete his Ph.D. in fall 2005.
Foster works with his advisor, Dr. Don H. Madison, Curators’ Professor of physics at UMR, and his co-advisor, Dr. Jerry L. Peacher, professor of physics at UMR, to understand how fundamental particles interact with each other. In the world of physics, this problem is called the "few body problem," and its solution has eluded scientists for several decades.
The fundamental forces of nature act between pairs of only two particles at a time and these interactions are well understood, Madison says. However, any system of interest in nature contains more than two particles. Physicists like Foster, Madison and Peacher, investigate how these systems containing more than two particles evolve in time as a result of all the two-particle interactions.
"It’s basically an elaborate game of billiard balls on an atomic scale," Foster explains. To study this problem, experimentalists send a particle at an atom and look to see what happens. As a theorist, Foster develops mathematical models of the collisions and then calculates the prediction of the model to see if it agrees with the experimental measurements.
Foster’s research furthers a basic understanding of fundamental physics, rather than a practical application.
"Basic research is crucially important both for obtaining a fundamental understanding of the universe in which we live, and for providing the groundwork for the solution of practical problems," Madison says.