For 20 years, University at Buffalo physicist Piyare L. Jain waited his chance to turn gold into truth.
This month, it came -- with the international publication of a paper on nuclear physics that vindicates his theories of an elusive sub-atomic particle, one that other scientists said didn't exist.
Using a high-energy beam of gold atoms, Jain has found evidence for the existence of a faint and fleeting speck of matter known as the anomalon.
The work, published this month in a British scientific journal, could reopen a long-shut doorway and provide other researchers with new clues to the basic structure of matter and the forces that hold the universe together.
It's a story of both science, and dedication to an ethic of exploration and the determined pursuit of an idea.
"A scientist has to talk to his conscience," said Jain, who cuts a lonely figure in a field dominated by huge teams of physicists. "That's important -- truth is involved in this."
Anomalons were a "hot topic" in the nuclear physics of the early 1980s. Never observed but predicted as an outcome of theories of the nature of matter, anomalons were a favored quarry of researchers worldwide.
But they weren't found. A team of physicists eventually weighed in with a verdict that they didn't exist. And for 20 years, most physicists followed that lead and abandoned the search.
Not Jain, whose objections at major physics conferences were noted but not followed.
"There's Berkeley, and there's Buffalo," he shrugs, accepting a reality of pecking orders in nuclear-physics research. "Who was going to listen to me? I was the only one."
Jain held that anomalons existed, but only under certain conditions. And those conditions couldn't be duplicated in particle-beam accelerators of the 1980s.
What was needed, he argued, was time -- time for technology to catch up with science, time to develop bigger and better accelerators that could smash heavier and heavier atomic nuclei into targets at higher and higher energies.
Jain, working usually with only one or two assistants while other experiments took teams of up to 150 scientists, used a series of better machines to keep searching. In steps, he used increasingly heavy particles -- the nuclear cores of atoms stripped of their electrons -- to create high-energy collisions that, for an instant, come close to the heat and pressure of the instant of Creation.
Jain's reputation as a physicist kept him in the running, both for publication of scientific papers and more coveted experimental time on the world's top accelerators.
Among his accomplishments was work at the huge CERN accelerator in Switzerland, with UB research assistant professor Gurmakh Singh, that provided the first evidence of a collective nuclear flow -- a possible stepping stone to laboratory creation of the soupy "quark-gluon plasma" that scientists think existed before the universe's first individual bits of matter.
Atoms of gold provided the nuclei for particle-beam experiments Jain has done in the past few years at Brookhaven National Laboratory. The work pursued tantalizing clues in earlier projects involving beams of iron and argon -- lighter elements with fewer nuclear protons and neutrons than gold.
Finally, Jain had his shot at an accelerator that could propel a heavy enough nucleus to high enough "relativistic speeds." The collision between a nucleus and a target would be powerful enough, at last, to produce evidence of anomalons -- if they existed.
But technology hadn't just made bigger and better accelerators. It also had made more advanced detectors -- electronic ones the size of buildings, providing numerical data read-outs that helped scientists analyze the results of hugely powerful fireballs too tiny to see.
None of those detectors had "seen" an anomalon. Jain thought that might be a bit like a Porsche skimming over the top of a pothole that would rattle the bones out of an old Model T, and he had the Model T to prove it.
Using an old-fashioned "poor man's technique" involving a hand-crafted photographic emulsion on a glass plate that can be held in one hand, Jain set out to outdo the huge teams and their electronic detectors.
And, according to the article reviewed by a peer jury and published this month in the British Journal of Nuclear and Particle Physics, he may have done just that.
"Finally, I have vindication," he said. "In 1984, my colleagues thought this was a dead issue. With this paper, I am saying that there is a pulse and the heart is beating; they were just using the wrong stethoscope to look for it."
The problem, Jain said, is that the electronic detectors use thick sensors. Anomalons produced in the heat and pressure of impact are revealed by secondary interactions after the nuclear collision, "riding" fragments of the main particles for the briefest of instants before leaving their own telltale interaction trail.
Electronic detectors could detect the atomic equivalent of two cars colliding in a fog bank, by noting the automobile wreckage that emerged from the mist. But Jain was looking for a passenger ejected during the collision but still inside the fog.
He found his quarry by narrowing the fog, using the much thinner photographic target emulsion and painstakingly examining every collision track in a couple of years of work with microscopes. The tracks of potential anomalon interactions were only about 10 microns -- one one-hundredth of a millimeter -- from the initial impacts, and the anomalons lasted only about a billionth of a second.
"These events would have been missed if the target had a thickness greater than this travel distance," Jain said. "The lifetimes of such particles are too short to be seen by electronic detection; the reaction dies in the target, and so it cannot be observed."
Jain's experiments turned up 51 percent more events than the "theory of strong interactions" predicted for his particle-beam collisions, an indication that something strange -- something anomalous -- was taking place.
With the photographic plates acting as both target and detector at the same time, Jain could see for himself the tracks made by particles as they burrowed through the emulsions.
"We have proven that this abnormal behavior during nuclear interactions is there, and that there is a large number of these interactions," he said.
The findings offer physicists hope on two fronts, technological and scientific.
The first might be a revival of interest in an old tool, the emulsion detector, which Jain believes was abandoned because of the ease of electronics. Lacking facilities and a major program at UB, for example, Jain must have his special emulsions prepared in Japan and developed in Russia.
"In America, it's a dead thing," he said. "Nobody uses emulsion except for me, because it's tough. But I enjoy it."
Even more promising, though, is the chance that research into anomalons might start anew. And anomalons could point toward the discovery of still other basic particles predicted by a field known as quantum chromodynamic theory -- including the elusive "H particle," multi-lambda hypernuclei or the quark, physics' version of the Holy Grail.
"It is possible that they could be implicated in all the mysteries we have not yet solved, such as the quark-gluon plasma, black holes and detection of new, exotic particles," Jain said.
Jain, a UB faculty member for 40 years and a recipient of a "Jewel of India" award, his native land's highest honor for non-residents, knows there's no such thing as the last word in his chosen science.
He knew that 20 years ago, when a Berkeley team shaped the path of mainstream research with a declaration that anomalons hadn't been detected and were probably a phantom not worth chasing.
"It's not the final word," said Jain, who went chasing as soon as the tools of physics grew powerful enough.
"It's a challenge, in your own mind. You have to have conviction. It's a road with thorns -- but I love it."