One could say Thom Mason, who assumed management of one of the world's largest and most important science projects at age 36, has science in his blood. His mother was trained as a biochemist and his father received a Ph.D. in geophysics. A lab rat, Mason grew up with the misconception that science was normal. His first brush with administrative management came as manager of the radio station at Dalhousie University in Halifax, where he met his wife Jennifer. Since receiving his Ph.D. from McMaster University, Mason's research took on an international flavor that later proved an invaluable asset to his work in Oak Ridge. He worked at Chalk River Laboratories in Canada, at Bell Laboratories in the United States, at Risų National Laboratory in Denmark, and in the Physics Department at the University of Toronto. He was selected as Director of the SNS project in 2001.
Q. What does the Spallation Neutron Source mean to science and to the American public?
The ultimate importance of the SNS lies in its potential to define our future. Historically, civilizations have been characterized in large part by the materials that shaped their economy, military strength, and everyday life. Stone led to bronze, which led to iron, which gave way to steel, which led in recent decades to silicon. Today's materials—nanomaterials, proteins, and molecules—are much more complex and require far more sophisticated tools to understand them. The neutrons produced at the SNS are one of the tools that will lead to a new age of materials. This change could prove to be as profound as the transition from iron to steel centuries ago.
Q. Completing such a massive project on time and on budget was no small task. What key management decisions made this possible?
The first and most important decision was to build SNS through a multi-lab collaboration. No single lab, including Oak Ridge, had the depth of expertise needed to design an accelerator of such size and complexity. Attempting to coordinate the design of a $1.4 billion project among six labs was considered by many a risky decision, but overall the effort worked out well. The complications we encountered were far outweighed by the benefits of the collective talent that went into the project. Second, we made a couple of important technology decisions that proved successful. Selecting the superconducting linear accelerator and mercury for the target improved the reliability of operations and the flexibility of future upgrades to the SNS. Finally, we made good hiring decisions over a sustained period. From a handful of people in 1998, we are now up to almost 350 staff composed of some of the brightest scientists and engineers in the world. They came to Oak Ridge to be part of something very exciting.
Q. Why was the decision to incorporate superconducting technology so important?
Dave Moncton was SNS Director when technical director Yanglai Cho led a study in superconducting radiofrequency to determine if European technology advances in superconducting should be considered as a last-minute option. The study recommended that a superconducting linear accelerator should be used because it contains sufficient long-term performance advantages. The advantages include operation reliability, lower electrical costs, and the ease with which the project could be upgraded in the future without adding another accumulator ring. The decision was a hard one made just in time. Six months later would have been too late.
Q. How will the SNS organization change as it moves from construction to full-time operations?
One of the advantages of having a multi-lab project is the ability to avoid hiring a large number of design staff in the beginning and then replacing them with a new group of operations staff. Since 1999, we have been on a gradual upward ramp of employees planning to work full-time in Oak Ridge. We are not expecting significant changes as we transition from construction to operations. With the completion of the Cold Source at the High Flux Isotope Reactor, ORNL now has two neutron facilities at which scientists will conduct experiments. The programs will be seamless.
Q. Do you expect the capabilities of the SNS to evolve over time?
Yes. With any project this large, you must plan for the fact that the technology will evolve and improve over the 40-year life of the facility. We have received funding to start a Power Upgrade, and there are plans for a second target building with spaces for additional instruments. During the design and construction of the SNS, ingenious technologies were devised to improve the facility. In Oak Ridge, for example, we developed a revolutionary, event-based, data acquisition system to record in real time neutron arrival times and positions. Our Materials Science and Technology Division designed an antenna that will help extend the ion source's lifetime. Other researchers developed diamond foils for stripping electrons from hydrogen ions leaving the accelerator to produce protons that collect in the accumulator ring. Our laser experts have developed accelerator diagnostics to enhance control of the ion beam. We will always be looking for new ideas on how to improve the SNS.
Q. Everyone has the same question. How will the SNS change our lives?
Literally everything in our lives is made from materials. If we can better understand how these materials behave, we can invent new drugs, lighter and more fuel-efficient cars and airplanes, more powerful computers, and metals that can last longer than we can imagine. The potential for the American economy is limitless.
Q. Will the SNS reclaim the leadership role for America in neutron science?
Without question. The paradox is that America's scientific leadership will be regained with a remarkably international workforce at the SNS. Many of these scientists are foreign born and now American citizens who bring with them a wonderful breadth of experience and creativity. The same kind of international talent that made possible the Manhattan Project in World War II will make Oak Ridge and the SNS the envy of the scientific world.
Q. What do you do in your time away from this project?
For the past three years my most important activity has been chairing the Oak Ridge Public Schools Education Foundation. Our first task was to help raise $55 million for the renovation of Oak Ridge High School. The second task was to raise another $4 million to establish an endowment for the Oak Ridge school system. We recently reached our first goal, and construction has begun on what will be one of the best high schools in America. As the father of two boys and the person responsible for recruiting some of the world's top talent to Oak Ridge, I could think of few activities more rewarding.
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