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Symposium Honors Helen Quinn

Attendees of Friday's symposium.
(Photo by Kelen Tuttle.)

Last Friday more than 150 colleagues and supporters gathered in Kavli Auditorium to celebrate the accomplishments of SLAC Professor Emeritus Helen Quinn. The symposium honored Quinn's more than four decades as a particle physics theorist with presentations exploring four areas in which she has made significant impact: gauge theories and the Standard Model; axions; B physics and CP violation; and science education.

"These are all still controversial, hot topics—topics people still like to discuss," said theoretical physicist Michael Peskin, who heads SLAC's theory department. "Helen has really had a remarkable career; she's one of SLAC's greatest theorists. This symposium is a chance to celebrate that."

SLAC theoretical physicist JoAnne Hewett added: "Helen's work attacked the fundamental problems of the time and has become part of the foundation of modern day physics."

As a graduate student at Stanford in the 1960s, Quinn was one of the original members of the SLAC theory group. After receiving her PhD from Stanford in 1967, she conducted postdoctoral studies at the German laboratory DESY. Quinn then accepted a position at Harvard, where she played a major role in the formulation of the Standard Model and quickly ascended to the role of assistant professor.

"During this time, we were all working on several things at once and it was a fabulous, exhilarating experience," said Harvard Professor Howard Georgi, who worked with Quinn during her time at Harvard. "This was a crazy time—the world changed every week. It was really very wonderful."

Helen Quinn mingles with symposium attendees. (Photo courtesy Jim Stanfield.)

After seven years at Harvard, Quinn returned to Stanford and SLAC, where she began her work on the symmetry that results in the axion, a theorized dark matter particle that may make up 80 percent of the universe but has yet to be experimentally discovered. In the 1990s, Quinn helped initiate the BaBar experiment at SLAC to study CP violation, and then supported the collaboration with her theoretical insight.

The symposium included talks by a collection of luminaries; in addition to Georgi, familiar local figures spoke at the event, including SLAC emeritus BJ Bjorken, David Hitlin from Caltech, Nobel laureate Carl Wieman from the Universities of Colorado and British Columbia, and Judy Franz, the longtime executive officer of the American Physical Society.

Many of these speakers noted that during her time at SLAC, Quinn has became a major figure in shaping physics and science education. She currently serves as co-chair of Stanford University's K-12 Initiative and for many years led SLAC's education and public outreach efforts. Quinn played a big part in creating the California state K-12 science standards, contributing particularly to the section on Investigation and Experimentation skills, and an important role on the National Research Council Board on Science Education.

Georgi summed up the overall feeling of the symposium, saying, "I am lucky to have had such a mature, sensible and brilliant colleague as Helen. I am very grateful for all that she has done for physics, for physics education and for women in physics."

The organizers thank SLAC's Particle Physics and Astrophysics Directorate and the Department of Energy for financially assisting the science sections of this symposium.

—Kelen Tuttle
SLAC Today, April 19, 2010