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A professor once recalled how 16-year-old Larry Sulak came across in an interview for an unpaid summer job in his lab: “A bright-eyed, bubbly young man from Beech Bottom, W.Va.,” who said “Golly shucks” when he talked about physics and engineering and who promised to do “whatever it took…washing test tubes, cleaning up after experiments…sweeping the floors.”
Sulak, the son of a TV and radio repairman and a school cafeteria cook who was determined to keep her children out of the coal mines, beat out two other candidates that day. Now, 57 years later, the University’s David M. Myers Distinguished Professor and College of Arts & Sciences chair emeritus of physics has won the highest US prize in his field, experimental particle physics.
Golly shucks indeed.
Sulak, revered by his colleagues, beloved by generations of students, and never too busy to fix a neighbor’s toilet—or explain the physics of a toilet—has been awarded the American Physical Society (APS) 2018 W.K.H. Panofsky Prize, for his work on things harder to explain: massive particle detectors and oscillating neutrinos. It has to do with the origins of the universe. More on that later.
“This was my highest dream, but I never thought it would happen,” says Sulak.
The first person he called after he found out about the Panofsky Prize was his close friend and colleague of some 40 years, Sheldon Glashow, a theoretical physicist and a Nobel laureate.
“The Panofsky is a prize that’s given for developing experimental technologies,” says Glashow, the Arthur G. B. Metcalf Professor of Mathematics and the Sciences. “This is exactly what Larry has succeeded in doing.”
Here is what the APS prize citation says: “For novel contributions to detection techniques, including pioneering developments for massive water Cherenkov detectors that led to major advances in nucleon decay and neutrino oscillation.”
Here is Sulak’s translation of what he did: in the late 1970s, when he and Glashow were both physicists at Harvard, he invented the technology for a massive, 10,000-ton particle detector that would test Glashow’s big theory—“that protons decay, which would explain the evolution of the universe from the big bang to today.” With two graduate students and eventually a team of other collaborators, he built the detector in a salt mine under Lake Erie, near Cleveland. They never found any protons decaying. But they did make two unanticipated discoveries—neutrinos oscillate, and when a star explodes, its mass converts into neutrinos. Those were two of the many discoveries that led to Sulak’s Panofsky prize. His technology has also enabled the creation of a number of gigantic particle detector facilities around the world, in Canada, China, Japan, South Korea, at the South Pole, and off the coast of Italy, as well as France.
“He tested and tested it and he proved that this beautiful theory was wrong,” Glashow says. “I was not happy that the theory was wrong, but I was happy that it was Larry who did it. He should have gotten the Nobel. They’ve given it to people who’ve used his technology to make other discoveries, but not to Larry himself.”
Glashow is familiar with Sulak’s skill at getting the job done. Some years ago, says Sulak, “I fixed Shelly’s toilet.”
Sulak says he is still searching for decaying protons and focusing, as always, on teaching and mentoring. He’s especially committed to bringing young female physicists, currently from the Middle East, who are challenging gender barriers in science, to CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), in Switzerland, and to his BU student internship program there.
“It’s fun solving problems,” Sulak says. “That’s why I love teaching. These students don’t know what they can’t do.”
Ask his students about Sulak and his prize and they cannot say enough.
Lina Necib (CAS’12), who is from Tunisia and is now a postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology, spent a semester abroad working with Sulak at CERN. “It’s wonderful to hear that he is being recognized,” she says. “He’s an inspiration to us all.”
Necib says her former teacher is “the most enthusiastic and passionate person I’ve ever met. He never took no for an answer—especially not from the European bureaucracy—and made everything happen. He was running across CERN buildings to show us new things. My friends and I could barely catch up. It was obvious how much he loved what he did and how much he cared about making sure physics was accessible to everyone.”
Bruce Cortez worked closely with Sulak on the Cherenkov detector and earlier experiments as a Harvard grad student in physics in the 1970s. “Larry was the best teacher I ever had,” says Cortez, now a chief scientist at AT&T Labs. “He did not care about titles or levels. He treated people the same whether they were undergraduates, graduate students, or other professional physicists. If you wanted to work with him, he gave you a chance.”
The project that led to the detector “probably would have given someone different from Larry pause,” says US Representative Bill Foster (D-Ill.), the only physicist in Congress and the other Harvard grad student who worked with Sulak on the detector. “But Larry just said, ‘This is great, we can do all this.’”
At a party celebrating Sulak, Andrei Ruckenstein, a CAS professor and chair of physics, called the Panofsky award “the crowning achievement of a long and distinguished career of research and training of the next generation of particle physicists.”
Sulak is looking forward to accepting his award at the American Physical Society meeting in April. Then, he says, he wants to throw a party for all the people, from all over the United States, Japan, and other countries, who collaborated on the detector that led to his prize.