Ten Questions: Mitch Newcomer
The heavenly findings of an SJ physicist
By Terri Akman

Photography by David Michael Howarth

For many people, watching the “Big Bang Theory” on TV is as close as we get to an understanding of higher-level science. But a conversation with physicist Mitch Newcomer, 62, proves that it takes a great mind, keen curiosity and a sense of wonder to discover new scientific technologies. Newcomer, who lives in Voorhees, works as a senior instrumentation specialist at the University of Pennsylvania. His successes include his recent work on the discovery of the elusive “God particle,” a monumental finding that has the worlds of science and religion reeling.


What is the God Particle?

Well, first of all, [Physicist] Leon Lederman was asked to describe what he was working on, and he called it the “god-damned particle.” The editor said, “No, you can’t say that.” So, he called it the God particle. Mr. Higgs [the physicist who first suggested this particle existed] is not particularly happy about that, because he didn’t think he was connecting with the deity in any way. But in a more folkish way, you could say it’s not so unreasonable.

Einstein gave us this idea that energy equals mass, so for a while people were taking apart mass and making energy. This particle is very different. It’s how you take energy and turn it into mass. I don’t know what you want to call it. I don’t want to get too deeply religious, but in a sense, we are made of mass. This curiosity is what drives us.


Can you explain – in simple terms – what a physicist does?

A physicist tries to understand the fundamental principles – if there are any – of nature. We believe the quality of our lives will improve if we understand nature.

Let’s suppose there’s a bunch of guys who work on learning more about light. As they work, they learn about something called coherent light, which has absolutely no use to anyone in the world in 1955 – which is when they’re doing this. But suddenly they say, “Oh, look, this light doesn’t spread apart. That must be interesting.” So they make something – just in the interest of understanding nature – that makes light that doesn’t diverge. Today we call this a laser.

There is a belief in the back of our minds that by looking deeper into nature, there is the possibility for us to increase the domain we have influence over.


What is your specific job?

I help to develop and design very large nuclear radiation detectors, such as those used to find the new [God] particle. My role at Penn has been to design the electronics for what’s called the transition radiation tracker. That’s a special device that tracks particles coming out of interactions between two protons that are accelerated inside a Large Hadronic Collider. These protons interact at extremely high energies and lots and lots of stuff comes out. We want to record the new and unusual stuff. So our job is to keep all the data on the detector long enough that external systems can judge which events are interesting enough to send to the data acquisition systems.


What is your average day like?

I often spend long periods of time on international phone conferences discussing our projects, which are very, very large. One is an upgrade design of the Atlas Detector System, which is part of the Large Hadron Collider, which sits about 450 feet underground in Geneva, Switzerland. Its mass is similar to the mass of the Eiffel Tower. How big is that project? There are 2,000 people working on it. About 60 percent are very active, the rest are less active. On one call, I could be speaking with people from the United States, Geneva, Poland, the UK and Germany. We are truly international. We have to communicate well and understand what our objective is. This isn’t a commercial product. There is one objective: to create a design so the detector can sense the signal of the particles going through it without interacting with them too much so the science of the particles can be discovered and not the tomography of the detector.


Why is your work important to the average person?

It may take several generations to find practical use for the natural phenomena we are learning about today. The technology that results may well be beyond our current imagination – no one can say. This kind of forward looking is beyond the business model of corporations. Fundamental research at the scales required for discovery today requires funding by national governments from many countries around the world. The United States is certainly a leader in developing the theory to direct the science we do and the technologies validate the theory through experiment.


How did you get involved in this scientific work?

I was at Florida State University and had a great resistance to becoming a mechanical engineer. The courses were boring, so after some time working I came back to New Jersey and went to Camden County College. I had the opportunity to have good teachers there who taught me how to study science and how to pursue the interests and talents that I had. I did very well in physics and got the physics award from CCC in ’76. Then I went to the University of Pennsylvania.


What are your other interests?

I’ve always been a very hands-on person, so I’m quite interested in the instruments people use to discover new characteristics in the universe. I’m a holder of what’s called the Ross Prize. I’m among eight people who worked on the design of the electronics of an underground detector – 3,000 feet underground – to see both the amount of energy deposited in the detector and the time in which it was deposited. We saw evidence of the explosion of a supernova 116,000 light years ago. This was tremendously exciting, because this was the only detector that saw this signal without any doubt. It eventually gave people an under- standing of this particle, a neutrino, that most hadn’t heard of. It’s exactly the particle that causes the whole outer part of a dying star, or a supernova, to explode.


Do you enjoy your job?

I love the field I’m in. It allows us to do medical research. We are working on positron emission tomography – PET scanners. The one that’s down the hall from me is the most precise whole-body PET scanner in the world. We took our ideas from high-energy physics, and at the suggestion of the people in radiology at Penn, we developed a way of timing the arrival of signals in the detector that improves the contrast significantly.


What were you like as a kid?

I was a very energetic young guy. As a first- and second-grader I would get up out of class, excuse myself to go to the bathroom and run around the bathroom. I just didn’t have the energy to sit in one place. I was caught at one point and they decided there might be some kind of therapy for a kid who does this, but they never found anything that worked very well. It was the early ’50s so people didn’t pay too much attention to it, and I think properly so. You learn to grow with your own personality. The thing that gave me the most curiosity is the basis I had at the Unitarian Church. That gave me the curiosity to ask big and hard questions about the universe, and it gave me the sense that I could understand anything if I put my mind to it. That’s what it took to morph myself from a person who couldn’t concentrate but loved science to a person who had to learn how to concentrate and become very good at it.


What advice do you have for kids who are interested in science?

One of the most important things we have today is community college. It’s one of the biggest contributors to our community. Part of the enabling sequence that allowed me to pursue things is the fact that there was a community college out there for me to go to where, if I wanted to, I could shine there and then move on.

January 2013
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