Nuclear physics on the up

Yale physics professor Richard Casten ’67 is the nucleus of attention in the science world.

Casten was awarded the 2011 Tom W. Bonner Prize in Nuclear Physics by the American Physical Society Nov. 1 for his experimental research in nuclear physics and the development of techniques important to the field. The prize, which consists of $10,000 and a certificate citing the recipient’s contributions, celebrates Casten’s work, which focuses on the structure of the atomic nucleus. Casten was also the director of the Wright Nuclear Structure Laboratory from 1995 to 2008 and won the 2009 Division of Nuclear Physics of the American Physical Society Mentoring Award.

Professor Richard Casten ’67 was recently recognized for his physics work.
Richard Casten '67
Professor Richard Casten ’67 was recently recognized for his physics work.

Q How did you feel when you were announced the winner of the Tom W. Bonner Prize?

A I was actually at a conference in Bordeaux, France, reading my e-mails late one night and saw the e-mail. I screamed out ‘Oh, oh my God! Oh, I can’t believe it. Wow. Yay!’ My former graduate student, Burcu Cakirli, heard this and ran over, worried that something was wrong, until she found out the news.

Q How many people get that prize a year?

A One person. Occasionally, the Prize is split between two people who share it for the same work, but the prize is basically for some research achievement and normally it goes to one person. It is the highest award in nuclear physics in the country

Q So, why physics? Why nuclear physics?

A Physics always fascinated me, since high school when I first discovered about atoms. Then in college I took a course on nuclear physics and loved it. The nucleus is a unique object. It and the protons and neutrons in it are the basic building blocks of nature. How to identify those simple structures (sometimes called symmetries) and then to understand why they occur, is one of the great challenges of modern science.

Q What is the most fascinating aspect of science for you?

A One of the features of much of modern science, from nuclei to atoms to biological systems, is the fact that these highly complex systems exhibit astonishingly simple patterns and regularities.

Q What tips do you have for students currently studying physics and interested in research or teaching?

A Look around before you choose a subfield. Don’t overcomplicate things. Nature is fundamentally simple. If you are smart and want to learn, work hard. If you don’t learn, then at least consider the possibility that the problem is not you but maybe a poor teacher. Take courses outside of science, like history, philosophy and economics. I could never have done what I did without taking breaks to clear my mind by playing tennis, baseball, travelling a huge amount (about 70 countries), hiking in the mountains, etc. There is life outside physics even for a physicist.