When physicist Bill Foster was contemplating a congressional run in his Illinois home district, he got some helpful advice from others who had made the jump from science to politics. He was told, he says, that he should branch out from science policy and "bring a scientific view to the full range of issues."
Foster, 52, who spent 22 years as a scientist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Ill., now has his shot after defeating Republican James Oberweis in a March 8 special election to finish out the term of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R), who resigned in November. Sworn in on March 11, he joins two other PhDs in Congress—Reps. Rush Holt (D–N.J.) and Vernon Ehlers (R–Mich.)—both physicists.
Democrats hailed the victory—in what has long been a solidly Republican district—as a sign of voter dissatisfaction with the policies of the Bush administration. But the win was also a hopeful sign for scientists who have watched from the sidelines in disbelief as politicians cut science funding and distorted research on evolution, stem cells and global warming.
Foster says he wants to bring his "fact-based" approach to issues such as health care and energy. "As a scientist, the starting point is always the facts of the matter, whereas often in politics the starting point is how does this play in the next election," he says.
He has the scientific credentials to back up his talk: In graduate school at Harvard University in the early 1980s, Foster worked on the IMB (Irving-Michigan-Brookhaven) proton decay detector, a cube of purified water 60 feet (18 meters) wide constructed deep inside a salt mine located under the shore of Lake Erie. Lined with highly sensitive light-detecting tubes, the experiment was designed to test so-called grand unified theories (GUT) of particle physics, which predicted that protons in the water would very rarely split into lighter particles and produce a flash of blue light. Foster's 1983 PhD thesis contained some of the detector's first published data, which ruled out the simplest GUT.
A year later, Foster moved to Illinois to work as a scientist at Fermilab, where he developed software tools that helped researchers sift through mounds of data that in 1995 led them to uncover the long-awaited top quark, the heaviest known subatomic particle. This was the sixth and final quark predicted by a highly successful theory of what goes on inside single protons or neutrons.
He also led a team that designed a new type of high-speed integrated circuit for particle detectors. That design is still being used today, he says, in the new CMS detector—one of two main experiments constructed for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva, Switzerland, the largest particle accelerator ever built—set to switch on and begin hunting for never-before-seen particles later this year.
His biggest achievement, however, was his co-invention of a system for boosting the efficiency of Fermilab's Tevatron. Long the world's most powerful accelerator, the machine smashes together streams of protons and antiprotons moving at near–light speed so researchers can study the subatomic debris for new particles. By collecting and storing antiprotons for reinjection into the main accelerator, the 1.9-mile (3.1-kilometer) Permanent Magnet Antiproton Recycler Ring more than doubled the rate of proton–antiproton collisions the Tevatron could produce, allowing it to stay at the cutting edge of particle physics.