DOE Physicists at Work - David Rainwater
DOE Physicists at Work
Profiles of representative DOE-sponsored physicists
doing research at universities and national laboratories
Compiled by the Office of Scientific and Technical Information
How do you choose between scholarships in physics, engineering or music? That's the decision David Rainwater faced when he entered college at the University of Missouri-Columbia. So, with a passion for both problem-solving and cello, he attempted to keep all his options open.
"I enrolled in two separate degree programs - physics and mechanical engineering - and took a fifth year to do it," says Dr. Rainwater, currently one of two Markshak Fellows at the University of Rochester. "That way I kept those two scholarships. Also I thought that separate, complete degrees would give me better future options."
But when he learned that he couldn't count music classes as electives in the engineering program, he had to drop the music scholarship. "Besides, I quickly realized that I could have music as a hobby and pursue physics, but you can't have physics as a hobby and be a musician."
Still, there was a surprise waiting for him on his road to a career. While he entered college thinking he would choose between careers in aerospace, controlled fusion, or music performance, he bumped head-long into high energy physics - a field that won out over other areas of study. Partly this was due to his fascination with the field, and partly due to other career considerations. "Both aerospace and fusion research appeared to be in the doldrums," says Dr. Rainwater.
He received a fellowship to spend the summer after graduation in Japan at the Tokyo Institute of Technology's Research Laboratory for Nuclear Reactors. Then, his undergraduate advisor suggested the University of Wisconsin-Madison as one of the better places to study high energy physics. So after a year working in industry to enable the purchase of a new cello, he moved to Wisconsin in 1994.
After earning his Ph.D., Dr. Rainwater continued studying physics while a post-doc in the Fermilab theory group, and recently completed a stint as a post-doc at the German laboratory DESY in Hamburg.
Dr. Rainwater says that using measurement to unravel mysteries is what fascinates him so much about physics. What gives things mass? How can we understand the properties of something as yet undiscovered? Not unlike a detective, Dr. Rainwater relies on his knack for breaking down complex ideas into practical facets of information. He has a particular love for showing how those smaller bits of information "can help yank into view presumably-hidden parts" of science. He calls it, "Exploring the connection between theory and experiment." Hailing from Missouri, he says that this intrigue for breaking down the big picture to reveal "hidden parts" may be part of his "Show-Me" state upbringing.
Now, at the University of Rochester, Dr. Rainwater explores ways the "yank into view hidden parts" of a might big picture. "We're trying to figure out what that special thing is out there that gives things mass - in essence, how nature works," says Dr. Rainwater. "Well, there are a number of theories to explain what that 'something special' might be, but those theories are kind of abstract and fairly technical. However, if through our experiments we can start to see certain things, then we start to take measurements. It's at that point that we can start to see certain things, then we start to take measurements. It's at that point that we can begin to prove or disprove those complex ideas."
Dr. Rainwater spends time thinking up ways to measure properties of the Higgs boson, believed to generate mass, which is what holds the universe together. He also works to improve how we measure properties of the top quark, the largest known of those tiny building blocks of matter. Little is understood about the top quark, but because of its unusually large size, it's considered a probably window for revealing much about nature.
Despite a full-time career as a physicist, Dr. Rainwater's musical ambitions have never waned. He has played with numerous amateur orchestras in Chicago and Germany, culminating in a performance of Mahler's Fifth Symphony in the famous Musikhalle in Hamburg with Orchester '91, one of the best amateur orchestras in Germany. "Mahler nearly killed me! I had to practice for weeks just to play all the notes, and another month to play them in the right order," says Dr. Rainwater.
While Dr. Rainwater delights in taking apart the big picture to reveal the "hidden parts," he also keeps in mind the broader view - in a very concrete way. While a post-doc at Fermilab, Dr. Rainwater took up aerobatics. He says that while not many of his friends and colleagues accept his offer of testing loops and hammerhead in a sport plane, they rarely pass up an invitation to an aerial tour of Fermilab. "People like seeing their own house or where they work but they usually don't recognize it from above," says Dr. Rainwater. "Physicists who see the Fermilab complex from the air come back with a completely different perspective of what they're involved in - it helps keep the big picture in mind."
Dr. Rainwater's articles accessed via OSTI: