LEAD | In 1958, Jose Alonso was a senior in high school at San Rafael Military Academy. He enjoyed math and engineering and thought that would be his college path.
But a phone call from a friend that resulted in a tour of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) changed everything.
“You know, I lived in that area, but I didn’t even know that Laboratory existed,” Alonso said. “It was an amazing experience.”
He spent the day with a graduate student who introduced him to particle accelerators — the Bevatron, at the time, the world’s highest energy proton accelerator; the HILAC, Heavy Ion Linear Accelerator, the world’s highest energy heavy ion machine at the time; and the 184-inch Synchrocyclotron, the largest existing cyclotron at the time (and which was invented by Earnest Lawrence, for whom LBNL is named).
“I had no concept of particle physics until I saw those machines,” Alonso said. “That’s when the lightbulb went off for me. That’s when I decided to go into particle physics.”
Alonso received his undergraduate and Ph.D. from MIT and later returned to LBNL to do research.
Although he is “20 years past the age of retirement,” Alonso continues to keep up with physics research. In 2002, just five years after retiring from LBNL, Alonso took on a new role — that of lab director at the Sanford Underground Research Facility.
“I came in at the infancy of SURF. It was completely fascinating — a wonderful opportunity for physics research,” Alonso said. “There was nothing like this in the United States. I remember going underground for the first time with a crew that included former miners. The doors to the 4850 opened and one of the men said, ‘I’m home.’ What a wonderful experience that was.”
Alonso “retired” again in 2009 but has continued to follow developments at Sanford Lab.
“It’s wonderful to see what’s happening at SURF,” he said. “We were so fortunate to have the vision of T. Denny Sanford and the support of the State of South Dakota. And the leadership at the lab is terrific. I was always optimistic it would be successful, and I’m tickled with how well things are going now.”
Today, Alonso stays busy working on the shielding design and accelerator parameters for a sterile neutrino experiment located in Japan and is involved with proton therapy for cancer, which repurposes old accelerators. In this therapy, a beam of protons or carbon is used to concentrate a radiation dose into a tumor, while sparing — as much as possible — the surrounding tissue.
Alonso said his interest in science remains high because “experiments in a variety of fields, for example, neutrino and dark matter research, aim to understand the universe, how things work, how everything is put together. And all the new discoveries are fascinating. I want to keep learning.”
Alonso’s career in physics spans 60 years, but he has no plans to slow down.
“I’ve developed a tool kit of skills that I believe are still useful, so I’m delighted to continue to be involved with experiments.”