Howard Nicholson

Citation for 2003 Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Award for Scholarship

Howard Nicholson is a truly remarkable physicist, one who has managed to do big science while teaching at a small college. His science is big in many dimensions. From l967 to l999 he co-authored 46 publications. Last school year he published an astonishing 17 additional papers, he chaired the physics department in the spring semester, and simultaneously received high praise from his students for his teaching! He is a Universal Physicist. He knows electronics, he knows software, and he knows how to manage small and large collaborations.

Howard received his B.A. from Hamilton College in 1966, which perhaps explains his appreciation of small liberal arts colleges, and also a Bachelor of Science the same year from MIT. His doctoral studies on experimental high-energy physics, completed in 1971, were carried out at California Institute of Technology. Cal Tech was also important for Howard as he met his wife Yvonne there.

Since Cal Tech, Howard has conducted research at some of the nation's most famous laboratories: Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, Stanford Linear Accelerator, and Brookhaven National Laboratory. At the Lawrence Laboratory, Howard and a small group established the best experimental lower limit on the decay rate of Molybdenum 100. This result was not improved on for years.

At the Stanford Linear Accelerator, affectionately known as SLAC, Howard is a member of the calorimeter group. He works on the Babar experiment, one of the three highest priority experiments supported by the U.S. Department of Energy and the quintessential example of big science. It involves a lot of people: 500 physicists worldwide, for a start. It costs a lot: $280 million for a major accelerator upgrade and a new detector and $10 million per year in operating costs. The experiment asks whether an important theoretical symmetry occurs in the B meson system and is accurately described by the standard model. The experiment pushes at our understanding of the basic constituents of our universe. Howard's work involves testing cesium iodide crystals and constructing materials and software for the BaBar electronic calorimeter. Howard's role is big within BaBar. In 2002, he served as run coordinator - a huge management job if there ever was one. He was responsible for the quality and quantity of the experimental data obtained in the experiment and he was on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for 6 months.

At Brookhaven he is involved with about two dozen other physicists who are studying large angle single collisions of elementary particles with nuclear matter. Howard and a colleague had the responsibility of rebuilding the failed superconducting magnet and its support structure. After about two years of work and a redesigned support system the magnet was still not performing reliably. Then they discovered a heat leak by taking x-rays of the magnet! This heat leak quenched the magnet. The magnet was fixed by additional cooling and soon was up and running, yielding copious data -- largely thanks to Howard's detection and work. At Brookhaven, Howard also proposed and constructed a hodoscope, that is an instrument that traces charge particles, for an experiment that gave vital information about the beam entering the detector.

Howard's science is big also in terms of funding -- he has been continuously funded by the Department of Energy since 1977. As noted by a physics colleague at UMass, his research grant in this field is the only federal grant awarded to a physicist at a four-year college. The funding is noteworthy for it reflects the esteem of others for the work Howard has done and continues to do. We, students and faculty alike, are fortunate to have this physicist of national and international renown at Mount Holyoke.