Monday, February 24, 2014

Whitworth alum’s research makes the cover of "Science" magazine


Ben Spaun, ’08, is the co-author of “Order of Magnitude Smaller Limit on the Electric Dipole Moment of the Electron,” which was recently the cover story for Science, one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world.

“It’s always rewarding when the greater scientific community recognizes the significance of our work,” Spaun says. “But we don’t dwell on that too much. We’re already redesigning our experiment to make our measurement even more precise.”

Spaun is currently attending Harvard University’s physics doctoral program through a fellowship. He is a member of the ACME collaboration, co-led by Yale physicist David DeMille and Harvard physicists John Doyle and Gerald Gabrielse. This research team has been investigating the shape of the electron.

While at Whitworth, Spaun majored in physics and mathematics; in 2007 he was selected from top math, science and engineering students nationwide to receive a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship.

“At Whitworth, I was encouraged to collaborate with other students and think outside of the box when problem solving,” Spaun says. “Both of those abilities have served me well at Harvard as I’ve worked with a team of graduate students to design, build and troubleshoot a unique experiment.”

After completing six years of study at Harvard, Spaun will graduate this semester with his Ph.D. He plans to continue conducting research, but in a different field of physics.

According to Spaun, physicists constantly develop theories that seek to explain the universe, known collectively as the Standard Model of particle physics. The existence of new exotic particles is continually being proposed. If these new exotic particles truly existed, they would affect the shape of the electron, causing it to look more egg-shaped. The ACME collaboration is able to achieve a precise reading of the electron by measuring the shape of the electron within a special molecule, thorium monoxide.

“Essentially, we are using the electron as an antenna to search for these exotic particles and to test new theories beyond the Standard Model,” Spaun says. “Our result did not disprove these new theories of physics, but it does cast doubt on them. As we continue to improve the precision of our measurement, we will one day either disprove these theories altogether, or validate them by measuring an asymmetry in the shape of the electron.”

Read more on the ACME Research Project at Harvard Gazette, Yale News and Scientific American, or watch these videos: The ACME Search for the Electron EDM and ACME Experiment.

Located in Spokane, Wash., Whitworth is a private liberal arts university affiliated with the Presbyterian church. The university, which has an enrollment of 3,000 students, offers 60 undergraduate and graduate degree programs.