Nuclear Science Division (Physical Sciences Area)
October 17, 2022
Reiner Kruecken has lived in many places – in Germany, Canada, and the U.S. east coast. This past June, he returned to Berkeley Lab where he was a postdoc 25 years ago, to become the division director for Physical Sciences’ Nuclear Science Division. An “accidental nuclear scientist,” Reiner, influenced by the Chernobyl disaster and cold war tensions, was originally not interested in nuclear energy or security applications. But when a job opened up at his university (the University of Cologne), at the Nuclear Physics Institute, he became fascinated by atomic nuclei and quantum mechanics at the fundamental level, and over time his passion grew to include the exploration of the many aspects of nuclear science and the ways nuclear science can contribute to society.
Elements caught up with Reiner to get his thoughts about nuclear science and the Lab.
Why is nuclear science research important to the Lab and to society?
Nuclear science fulfills the fundamental science mission of the Lab, and it also has many important applications. On the fundamental science side, everything around us has atomic nuclei – it is the core of matter itself. It is a fascinating system with an interplay of fundamental forces and emerging phenomena. It also spans the history of the whole universe, playing a role from the beginning of the universe (microseconds after the Big Bang) to how stars burn and end their lives. Nuclear physics determines which elements are made in stars. And we ourselves are all made of stardust. Nuclei are also a great laboratory for testing fundamental laws of physics and searching for new forces and particles.
At the same time, nuclear science can be translated into a broad set of applications. Nuclear science methods are widely used in medical imaging today – nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scans, for example, use methods that were used to study atomic nuclei – and in nuclear medicine such as radiation therapy for cancer patients. Radiation is used to make food safe and to study waste water flow in mines and the uptake of nutrients in plants. Nuclear energy is an important part of the clean energy mix.
With our 88-inch cyclotron at the Lab, we are also studying the heaviest elements and aim to search for new elements. The cyclotron is also used to test electronics that go on satellites, to ensure that they can survive cosmic ray bombardment. Components of the James Webb Space Telescope, for example, were tested at the 88-inch cyclotron. Nuclear security is another important application. One of our Lab’s spinoffs, Gamma Reality, was founded on a Lab invention that has real-time, 3D radiation mapping technologies deployable on unmanned platforms.
All of these aspects make nuclear science endlessly fascinating.
You were a postdoc at the Lab in the mid-‘90s. What advice would you give postdocs at the Lab today?
I would encourage postdocs to take a little bit of time to look over the fence. There are so many opportunities to learn from others at the Lab, including peers. These interactions and connections can open you up to new ideas and new approaches. They are fantastic opportunities that postdocs should take advantage of.
What types of leisure activities do you enjoy now that you have returned to the Bay Area?
I am thrilled to be back in the Bay Area. I enjoy taking walks in nature with my wife and with our dog, by the water or in the hills. I might get back into sailing if I have time. I also enjoy cooking a variety of simple dishes with the fresh ingredients available in the area.