The Science of Sharing

U.S. researchers assist their recovering counterparts from Japan.

Click to enlarge photo.Enlarge Photo

Three Japanese scientists in the labCourtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Maiko Kofu, Atsushi Nagoe and Osamu Yamamuro examine their sample attached to the end of the cryostat stick after running an experiment at Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Spallation Neutron Source.

It's said that a friend in need is a friend indeed. But what do you do when your friend needs a supercomputer…or something even harder to find, like a Spallation Neutron Source or a High Flux Isotope Reactor?

If you're a researcher in the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Science, it's pretty simple: You offer them time on one of yours. And that's exactly what researchers at several Office of Science facilities are doing for their counterparts in Japan.

Last March 11th, the Tohoku Earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck our island ally with shattering force. Tens of millions of Japanese citizens are still adjusting to the aftermath of those disasters, not only those living in quake-ravaged areas, but all around the country.

Many scientists are among them. For instance, the Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex (J-PARC) has been shut down due to earthquake damage. Researchers using electricity-hungry supercomputers at other facilities had their work put on hold due to the power shortages still afflicting the country. Those shutdowns and slowdowns mean more than a loss of potentially interesting results. Projects on hold may mean lives on hold, with plans delayed and even career hopes denied.

That's where researchers in DOE's Office of Science have come in. Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have given their Japanese counterparts time on the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) and High Flux Isotope Reactor, both of which are similar to the experimental equipment at J-PARC. The team at SNS has accepted two-dozen research proposals from J-PARC scientists, who expect to complete their work before December. Scientists at Oak Ridge even joined with citizens from the city to make a $20,000 donation to their sister city of Naka, Japan, which will be used to repair a local school damaged by the earthquake.

Three other Office of Science facilities—Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago and Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Virginia—have offered supercomputing time to Japanese physicists trying to understand the fundamental interactions at the heart of matter (in a field of lattice quantum chromodynamics).

These shared efforts may advance the field as a whole, but by offering their resources, DOE researchers might also be delaying their own projects, and perhaps postponing results they've been hoping to see for years. They could even be increasing the competition from their counterparts across the Pacific.

But it's the right thing to do. And for all its complexity at hand, science is an exceptionally human endeavor at heart. Compassion goes hand-in-hand with creativity, and even brilliance. So in that sense, there's no logic to the science of sharing: Just a friend in need…and a friend in deed.

For more information on the DOE Office of Science, please go to: http://www.science.energy.gov/.

Charles Rousseaux is a Senior Writer in the Office of Science

Last modified: 3/15/2013 5:23:53 PM