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Stanford Report, December 3, 2003

Nan Phinneyselected as Marsh O’Neill Award recipient


During the eight years that physicist Nan Phinney worked as program coordinator for the Stanford Linear Collider (SLC) -- the world's first linear collider -- one image kept coming to mind. "The SLC had more near-death experiences than any project in history," said Phinney, recalling the number of times that funding for the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) project was endangered. "I had a vision of the SLC rising from the ashes like a phoenix."

In nominating Phinney for a 2003 Marsh O'Neill Award, many of her current and former colleagues cited her technical ability and leadership qualities as critical elements in the project's survival and ultimate success. As program coordinator from 1990 to 1998, Phinney led the effort to make the accelerator perform -- an enormous challenge that took constant effort, said Burt Richter, the Paul Pigott Professor in the Physical Sciences and former director of SLAC.

Phinney, now deputy leader of accelerator physics for the Next Linear Collider (NLC), turned "what appeared to many to be a failing accelerator project into a spectacular proof-of-principle for a new accelerator concept," said John Jaros, a professor at SLAC. "She led the troops in day-to-day battles with a difficult technology."

Phinney, who earned a doctorate in physics from the State University of New York-Stony Book, came to SLAC in 1981 as one of the first physicists hired to work on the SLC. She previously had worked for nine years at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Switzerland on high-energy particle physics experiments. "I thought [the linear collider] was really bold and imaginative and exciting. Anyone could build a storage ring, but this was going to be fun," she said.

She rose to leadership positions at SLAC and became an international spokesperson for the new technology as a result of her scientific expertise as well as her ability to talk to audiences ranging from scientists to government officials, said David Burke, a professor at SLAC.

"It never would have worked without the brilliant ideas and hard work of a lot of people," Phinney said. "I sort of have the image of being like the hand on the rudder. A lot of brilliant people had ideas, but you had to pick between them and say, 'We're going to go in this direction.' It doesn't matter if you're right -- well, it's better if you're mostly right -- but the most important thing is that you go somewhere in a coherent fashion," she added. "And I could communicate and make decisions and you need that."

Phinney's personal style -- warm and dryly humorous -- also helped to smooth over the rough patches during the work marathons the project demanded. The accelerator team met every morning at 8 a.m. seven days a week for months at a time while the accelerator was running. Tensions could run high as the team thrashed out problems. "My style is to make jokes," she said. "I kind of get people laughing."

Her current job is quieter -- "not like riding a unicycle all the time" -- but no less influential. Much of her time is now spent writing and editing reports and serving on national and international committees, where she brings "her hard-won wisdom and experience on linear colliders to the worldwide linear collider design efforts," Richter said.

Phinney was a member of the second International Linear Collider Technical Review Committee and the U.S. Linear Collider Steering Group Accelerator Task Force. She serves on the United Kingdom Linear Collider Machine Advisory Committee. Phinney was elected chair of the Division of Physics of Beams of the American Physical Society for 2004.

"If the SLC hadn't been a success, we wouldn't be talking about the Next Linear Collider," Phinney said. "We took a lot of lumps and had to fight to get where we did, but we did spearhead a lot of knowledge for the field that has been very valuable elsewhere.

"I really believed that this was the technology of the future. All of us did. It was a question of defending not only the thing you'd been working so hard on but also the future."

Nan Phinney