June 1, 2021
Ben Nachman was introduced to high energy physics in high school, making his decision to attend Cornell University easier since there is a particle accelerator on campus. That decision to continue on a research path led him to the Lab, where he is a staff scientist in the Physics Division. In May, he was awarded the 2021 Guido Altarelli Award and on Monday, he was awarded the Young Experimental Particle Physicist Prize of High Energy and Particle Physics from the European Physical Society.
In high school, he was part of a research project hosted by the University of Nebraska called the Cosmic Ray Observatory Project (CROP). The project's goal, which was the topic of his senior project, was building cosmic ray detectors and putting them on the roofs of Nebraska high schools. In college, he worked with Professor Jim Alexander in the Cornell University CMS group. They developed and deployed a new method for measuring the top quark mass with early data from the Large Hadron Collider.
In graduate school, his Ph.D. co-adviser Ariel Schwartzman had been interested in using jets to look for new particles. Ben became fascinated by the internal structure of jets and the wealth of information their substructure can tell us about the quantum properties of the strong force. His interest has coincided with a renaissance in studying the strong force. Over the last approximately ten years, experimentalists and theorists have made amazing progress in studying the radiation pattern inside jets.
Ben said many of the calibration and machine learning tools he developed likely have broader applicability across science and industry. In particular, his research has led to new methods for combining AI with computer simulations and training machine learning methods on data without labels, that is pre-classified into categories (imagine training a neural network to distinguish cat and dog pictures where the training dataset doesn’t have the animals labeled).
One key question he hopes to solve over the next 10 to 20 years is how we can ensure that we fully exploit the data from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC)? Researchers continue to pore over the data from the LHC, but all of the explorations so far only take advantage of low-dimensional information and are guided by theory. Ben believes that a complementary approach that is more exploratory, within theoretically reasonable bounds, could also yield important insight. Ben wonders if the new physics can only be observed through subtle correlations in high dimensions. The growing field of AI-enabled anomaly detection for fundamental physics will likely play a central role in this research.
What drew you to science as a child?
It is hard to say exactly. As long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a physicist (even before I knew what that meant). I think I got the idea from my art teacher, Isabella Threlkeld, to whom I dedicated my Ph.D. thesis. She told me many inspirational stories about Albert Einstein starting from when I was six years old.
Who is the most influential person to date in your life?
My most influential person is Hannah Joo, a medical doctor / scientist in training at UCSF whom I met and fell in love with while studying in Cambridge about 10 years ago. She has incredible intuition, exacting observation, scientific rigor, and intense compassion and she has been a strong influence on how I live my life as a scientist and person.
How has working at the Lab contributed to your professional growth? What is special at the Lab that makes you happy you are here?
The team science attitude of Berkeley Lab has been an amazing environment to work in. I have enjoyed close collaborations with scientists from a variety of groups across multiple divisions with many different backgrounds.