Introducing the new Wright Lab, where physics takes on the universe’s biggest questions

Yale’s Wright Lab has been re-imagined as a nimble nexus for creating the sophisticated instruments that will transform science in the decades to come.

Students, faculty, and staff across the university got to see the results for themselves on May 16, as the new Wright Lab had its official debut. The event included lab tours, a historic overview of the facility, a video about the lab, and presentations on current research.

“The new Wright Lab is advancing the frontiers of fundamental physics,” said physics professor Karsten Heeger, the lab’s director. “It investigates questions about the very small and the very big, from elementary particles to the origins of the universe.”

The lab’s multi-year renovation is only one component of a major expansion of physical science facilities on campus. The effort includes the recent creation of new labs for chemistry, biology, and physics at the Sterling Chemistry Laboratory; the opening of the Yale Quantum Institute; and soon-to-be-completed classrooms and labs for computer science and engineering at the Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science. Construction of a new Yale Biology Building, on the site of the former Gibbs Laboratory, began earlier this year.

“There is no bigger investment that we plan to make than in science,” said President Peter Salovey, who noted that Wright Lab’s facilities encourage more collaboration with national and international research institutions. “This is the place where excellent physics will be carried out.”

The original Wright Lab opened in 1966 as the Wright Nuclear Structure Laboratory (WNSL). It was named for Arthur Williams Wright, a 19th-century Yale graduate and faculty member who pioneered a number of physics and astronomy research areas. Wright also directed the construction of Yale’s original Sloane Physics Laboratory.

Led by its first director, D. Allan Bromley, WNSL became a premier hub for physics research, conducting influential experiments in heavy ion physics. At the heart of the research was the first MP tandem electrostatic particle accelerator (which operated until 1985) and later the Van de Graaf tandem accelerator (which operated until 2011).

“Synergy, collaboration, and collisional frequency”

The new Wright Lab is positioned to lead cutting-edge research at the intersection of nuclear, particle, and astrophysics. Yale officials explained that the lab’s facilities and expertise are geared to today’s exploration of physics questions involving everything from neutrinos to dark matter. Wright Lab researchers are involved in collaborations in eight countries, on six continents.

“This place was designed with synergy, collaboration, and collisional frequency in mind,” said physics chair Paul Tipton. “Physics is an enabling science that lets other sciences flourish around it.”

A number of Yale faculty members at the event described their ongoing research at Wright Lab, including John Harris, Sarah Demers, Jack Harris, Bonnie Fleming, Steve Lamoreaux, Reina Maruyama, Charles Baltay, and Laura Newburgh. Richard Casten, the D. Allan Bromley Professor Emeritus of Physics, gave an overview of Wright Lab’s history and legacy.

Heeger called special attention to the lab’s former directors, a group that includes Bromley, Casten, Peter Parker, Keith Baker, and John Harris.

Tamar Gendler, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, noted that Wright Lab is a key component in attracting the highest-caliber students and faculty to campus. She described the lab as a place where the past and present meet, and where people at different points in their careers and different branches of physics will shape “the future of science at Yale.”

Tours of the renovated facility took visitors through glass-enclosed clean rooms, where temperature, humidity, and air quality can be controlled; an extensive machine shop area, filled with lathes and other equipment; experiment rooms outfitted with work stations and overhead hydraulics; faculty offices; meeting rooms; and common areas.

Pieces from the old Wright Lab particle accelerator are displayed on some of the walls. Outside the main entrance is another piece of the accelerator — “The Portal,” a seven-ton, 14-foot-tall sculpture realized by the collaborative efforts of Jim Palmer, Jeff Ashenfelter, Frank Lopez, and Heeger, with support from Yale. The Yale School of Art collaborated through the efforts of then-art student Virginia Lee Montgomery.

In keeping with the spirit of the lab, Heeger concluded his remarks with a playful assignment for the students, faculty, and staff in attendance. “This is a place where we want to build things,” he said, urging them to go home and “take something apart or build something new.”

This video shows the transformation of the Wright Nuclear Structure Laboratory to the Yale Wright Laboratory at Yale University.
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