When I think of what characterizes the American ethos, I think of vision, innovation, perseverance, leadership and courage to explore the unknown. These also happen to be the exact traits I’ve witnessed in Dr. Samuel Ting (or Sam Ting as he is known by his colleagues), a person who has dedicated his life to exploring the fundamental building blocks of the universe and opening up humanity's understanding of the unknown.
I met Sam in 1994, when he was just getting his Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) project off the ground, quite literally as he was looking to get it flowing into space.
Sam Ting’s Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) is a cutting-edge scientific instrument designed to study cosmic rays and high energy particles that travel through space at extremely high speeds. Its purpose is to enable scientists to distinguish between different particle species and examine the ratio of matter to antimatter in space.
What is Antimatter?
Antimatter holds significant implications to help better understand the Big Bang theory, which is our leading explanation for the origins and evolution of our known universe. According to the Big Bang theory, the universe began in a hot and dense state, and during its early stages, equal amounts of matter and antimatter were created. However, a fundamental mystery arises from the fact that we observe an overwhelming abundance of matter in the present-day universe, with little remaining antimatter. This matter-antimatter asymmetry, known as baryon asymmetry, is a key area of aiming to understand the beginnings of our universe. Scientists theorize that during the intense conditions of the Big Bang, matter and antimatter annihilate each other, but a slight difference in their behavior allowed a small excess of matter to survive. Understanding the origin of this asymmetry and why matter prevailed over antimatter is a vital scientific pursuit, as it hopefully shed light on the early universe's dynamics and the forces that influenced its evolution. Sam Ting’s AMS would be a major stepping stone in unraveling the properties and behavior of antimatter to uncover the mechanisms that led to the observed matter-antimatter imbalance, providing deeper insights into the nature of the cosmos.
At the time of its conception, the AMS faced some criticism within the space and science community. Even the space science leads at NASA questioned the project and Sam Ting.
It’s too expensive. Is there enough scientific value? Might there be meaningful breakthroughs? Sam’s an accomplished scientist but he’s never actually performed an experiment in space. Does he have the capacity to deal with complexities of space science?
However, for the past twelve years, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) has been aboard the International Space Station producing a cornucopia of meaningful science. It has been looking for antimatter at an unprecedented accuracy of parts per billion and has collected data from more than 175 billion cosmic ray events, rigorously filtering and keeping less than one of 1,000 events initially recorded. Even with its robust filtering, AMS collects and stores data for over 16 billion cosmic ray events annually.
There is still much more to be assessed however thus far what we have learned through the AMS is that we have detected antimatter in the forms of antiprotons (antimatter complement of protons) and positrons (antimatter form of electrons), we have observed unique differences in positron and electron activity at different energy levels, we have concluded that different astrophysical sources, such as dark matter and cosmic ray collisions, produce high energy positrons as opposed to those which produce high energy electrons and we have detected some of the heaviest forms of antimatter, including antihelium, anticarbon, and antioxygen—particles whose origins are still relatively unknown. Thanks to these findings we are a giant leap closer to better understanding our fundamental building blocks of the universe.
The AMS was installed on the International Space Station with a space ballet by astronauts on May 19, 2011 and this May I would like to celebrate its inventor and his American ethos – Dr. Samuel Ting.
Sam Ting, born in 1936 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, was the first of three children to Chinese professors. Although his parents had intended for him to be born in China, he became an American citizen by chance when he was prematurely born during their visit to the United States. After two months, Sam's family returned to China, but their homeland was embroiled in the Sino-Japanese war and the Chinese Civil War, delaying his regular schooling until he reached the age of twelve.
At the age of twenty, Sam made the decision to return to the United States for college and found himself back in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with only $100 in his pocket and limited English proficiency. Despite these challenges, he persevered, working tirelessly to secure scholarships for his education. Within three years, he earned his bachelor's degree and went on to complete his PhD in another three years.
Sam's achievements in the field of particle physics are remarkable. He co-discovered the J/ψ meson, a groundbreaking finding that revolutionized our understanding of quarks and provided evidence for the existence of the charm quark.
What is a Charm Quark?
The charm quark is one of the six known flavors of quarks, which are fundamental particles that make up matter. Found within protons and neutrons, the charm quark carries an electric charge of +2/3 and has a relatively high mass compared to other quarks. Its existence was theorized in the 1970s to explain certain particle decay processes that existing quark models couldn't account for. Charm quarks are produced in high-energy collisions and quickly decay into other particles through the strong nuclear force. Studying charm quarks has enhanced our understanding of the strong force and subatomic particle behavior. The discovery of the J/ψ meson, composed of a charm quark and antiquark, played a pivotal role in confirming the existence of charm quarks and expanding our knowledge of quark interactions. Charm quarks and their associated particles continue to captivate researchers in the field of particle physics as they unravel the mysteries of the fundamental constituents of the universe.
Sam’s pioneering work and discovery of the J/ψ meson earned him the prestigious Nobel Prize in Physics in 1976, recognizing his exceptional contributions to the scientific community.
Continuing his journey in particle physics, Ting embarked on another remarkable endeavor to search for dark matter and antimatter. He had conceived the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) in the early 90’s. This is when I met the Nobel Laureate Dr. Samuel Ting and began our multifaceted quest to get the device into space a begin the quest!
What stood out to me about Sam Ting was his ability to lead and maintain a positive attitude even in the midst of skepticism around the AMS project. When he approached me in 1994 with a proposal to launch a spectrometer capable of studying antimatter, dark matter, and other high-energy phenomena, he had already secured funding from the Department of Energy and as well as from a coalition of scientists worldwide to initiate the project. In fact, it was more like an army of collaborators of ~600 scientists from 16 countries, including Italy, Germany, Russia, China and Taiwan.
As I have said in the past,
“When Sam Ting speaks you listen.”
At the time NASA was in the early stages of constructing the International Space Station (ISS). The Space Station would be first and foremost an orbiting laboratory capable of conducting world-class science, and I felt that the addition of the AMS led by Sam Ting would be an essential step in realizing the full potential of the ISS. I agreed to select the AMS as an experiment for the ISS once it passed a rigorous peer review by the leading physicists in the field. With a very positive peer review Sam then brought the NASA team into his multi-agency, multi-country cooperative coalition with the singular mission to advance our scientific understanding of the universe.
This is what I call leadership. In fact, through the AMS, Sam Ting may have led the most extensive international collaboration in space science history (give or take the International Space Station :)).
In the span of 1995 to 1998, Sam Ting and his dedicated team embarked on a meticulous design phase for the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), a task fraught with technical challenges. They meticulously crafted the spectrometer, incorporating vital components such as a powerful magnet, precision tracking systems, and specialized detectors for measuring particle flux, charge, and energy. The AMS had to be engineered to withstand the harsh conditions of space, including extreme temperatures and radiation, all while maintaining its scientific integrity.
In 1998, a crucial milestone was achieved when a prototype of the AMS was successfully built, launched and flown on a 10-day trip aboard the space shuttle to the Russian Mir space station (our test space station while the ISS was being built). However, the development process faced its fair share of excitement and pressure. Driven by a desire to meet the demanding construction schedule, Dr. Ting famously canceled the Christmas break for his team, urging them to reflect only for a few moments on Christmas Day. This display of determination showcased Sam Ting's unwavering commitment to the project's scientific success.
For those who know my own intensity, you can see why Sam and I have bonded so much over the years.
Launching the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer
In 1999, construction for the AMS commenced, bringing together the collective efforts of research institutes and industrial partners from participating countries. The meticulous assembly process was characterized by rigorous quality control measures and comprehensive testing to ensure the instrument's reliability and accuracy in capturing cosmic ray data. The international team of scientists and engineers collaborated closely, playing an instrumental role in bringing the AMS closer to its final form. The type of attention to detail and close collaboration you would want in such a high stakes deep technology effort.
On November 2, 2000, a significant milestone was reached with the arrival of the first residential crew aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Shortly thereafter, Sam Ting's team completed the construction of the AMS, preparing it for transportation and installation on the ISS. The stage was set for the AMS to embark on its mission.
However, tragically in 2003 the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster occurred, resulting in the loss of all seven crew members. This catastrophic event led NASA to prematurely end the shuttle program, causing the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to be removed from the flight manifest. The setback was a devastating blow, delaying the AMS's journey to space and dampening the spirits of those involved.
Undeterred, Dr. Ting fought passionately for the AMS project. In 2005, he addressed a Senate committee on the state of American science, passionately defending the importance of basic science and advocating for his experiment. Senators such as Ted Stevens, Bill Nelson, and Kay Bailey Hutchison took notice, attending Dr. Ting's presentations or visiting the project at CERN. Their support, combined with Dr. Ting's determination, eventually led Congress to order an extra shuttle flight for the AMS.
Just three days after Barack Obama's inauguration, the AMS was back on the flight manifest. On May 16, 2011, after nearly a decade of waiting and perseverance, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer embarked on its long-awaited journey to the ISS, carried aboard the space shuttle Endeavour. This momentous occasion marked the culmination of Dr. Ting's unwavering dedication and tireless efforts to bring the AMS to space.
The intricate installation process occurred during a spacewalk on May 19, representing a historic milestone in scientific exploration. With the AMS securely placed on the exterior of the ISS, its mission to unravel the universe's secrets commenced, sparking enthusiasm among scientists and space enthusiasts worldwide.
Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer Discoveries
Since its installation on the ISS, the AMS has tirelessly collected valuable data, revolutionizing our understanding of cosmic rays and their intricate properties. Through precise measurements, the AMS has confirmed the existence of antimatter and provided unprecedented insights into its distribution throughout space. These findings have challenged and expanded our current theories, propelling scientific research into new frontiers. Equally remarkable is the AMS's contribution to our understanding of dark matter, as it continues to unveil tantalizing clues about its properties and prevalence in the vast expanse of the universe.
The AMS experiment has meticulously scrutinized nearly 100 billion cosmic rays, encompassing energies reaching into the multi-trillion electron volt range. These findings have already posed significant challenges to our existing comprehension of cosmic ray origin and their traversal across the cosmos. Particularly intriguing is the discovery of an excess of high-energy positron particles, the antiparticles of electrons. While this surplus may stem from familiar sources like pulsars, it could also arise from particle collisions involving enigmatic dark matter.
By gathering additional data, made possible by extending the lifespan of AMS, scientists aspire to ascertain the decay rate of these positrons, offering valuable insights into potential underlying causes. In parallel, AMS researchers diligently investigate high-energy antiprotons, as they constitute a distinctive characteristic that pulsars cannot generate. This line of inquiry holds promise for illuminating a unique signature that may be attributable to dark matter.
With each passing day, the AMS surpasses expectations and achieves new milestones, providing a wealth of data that enhances our understanding of the fundamental building blocks and origins of the universe. Through the unwavering dedication of Dr. Sam Ting and his team, the AMS project stands as a testament to the remarkable achievements made possible through human curiosity and the tireless pursuit of scientific exploration.
To me, Sam Ting exudes the American ethos. What takes more innovation, perseverance, leadership and courage to explore the unknown than endeavoring into finding the other half of the universe.
This is why, on the birthday of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, Sam Ting is my visionary of the month.
In fact, you can watch the full documentary about Sam Ting and the AMS story on Disney+.
Sign up for my newsletter and come back next month to read about Jerry Elverum, my dear former boss and brilliant scientist who created the engine that saved the astronauts of the Apollo 13 mission.