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Particle physicist who was a ‘force of nature’ dies at 58.
By Daniel Garisto | February 16, 2023
Credit: Reidar Hahn / Fermilab
Meenakshi Narain examines possible top quark events at Fermilab's DZero experiment in 1995.
Meenakshi Narain, an experimental particle physicist who helped discover the top quark and pushed her field to be more diverse, died Jan. 1 in Providence, RI. She was 58.
She began accruing accolades early on, with one of Fermilab’s prestigious Wilson Fellowships. At the end of her life, she was the physics chair at Brown University, a member of the Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel (P5) and the Department of Energy’s advisory committee, and a co-convener of the Energy Frontier during the Snowmass process. Narain was elected an APS Fellow in 2007.
In tributes, many described Narain as a “force of nature,” citing her tenacity and will. “She's one of the most courageous people I know,” says Tulika Bose, an experimental particle physicist at the University of Madison, Wisconsin. “I think her biggest legacy — of course, she did fantastic physics — but I think it's the way she has influenced people over the years.”
Meenakshi Narain — Meena, to friends and family — was born in Gorakhpur, India, to Prem Narain Srivastav and Kusum Srivastav. “Her desire was to do very well in physics and go to America and do good research from the very beginning,” says Brajesh Choudhary, a particle physicist at Delhi University and close friend. After receiving degrees from Gorakhpur University and the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, she matriculated to Stony Brook University in New York.
There, she worked on upsilon physics in a tight-knit team under Juliet-Lee Franzini. She also met a fellow student, Ulrich Heintz, and in 1988 the two were married with three weddings — in India with her family, in Germany with his, and in the U.S. to get a certificate. “In Germany, you have to go to City Hall two weeks before the wedding and post so that people can object, and that time constraint didn’t work,” Heintz explains wryly.
Narain made her way to Fermilab, where she and Heintz worked on the D-zero collaboration, then in hot pursuit of the top quark. As a postdoc, Narain was mentored by Boaz Klima, one of the top quark conveners. “I appointed her to be in charge of one of the key channels there, the dileptons,” Klima says. “She did a fantastic job. Not only the dedication, but the precision. She would not take any shortcuts.” The dilepton channel, in which both W bosons decayed to leptons, would prove crucial.
In February 1995, D-zero’s top quark group had strong evidence for the eponymous particle and were preparing a long paper. But on Friday, Feb. 17, they learned that their competitor, the Collider Detector at Fermilab (CDF), was set to publish. Spurred, Narain and her colleagues wrote through the night and had a draft ready on Saturday. The next week, CDF and D-zero sent their papers to Physical Review Letters together, jointly announcing the discovery of the top quark. “One of the spokespeople of D-zero wrote to me: ‘I don't think we would have been able to do the top discovery without Meenakshi quite like we did it. And I'm sorry, I never really told her that,’” Heintz says.
Despite her success, Narain was at times frustrated by her treatment. Her suggestions were often ignored until a male colleague chimed in. There was no maternity leave at the time, so Narain frequently brought her newborn son to work. According to Heintz, the experience at Fermilab helped lead her to fight for women and underrepresented minorities in particle physics.
“She was a true warrior. She fought and fought,” Klima says. “There were many people that were not happy with that — very senior people that were offended. She didn't call people names, but she pointed out that we could do a lot better.”
After Fermilab, Heintz and Narain both accepted jobs at Boston University, where she began to mentor students. “I always felt protected,” says Kevin Black, a particle physicist at the University of Madison, Wisconsin and a former graduate student. “I try to emulate her as an advisor to my students, and postdocs, but I can't do as good a job as she did.” Once, Black recalls, Narain flew from Boston to Fermilab to pull an all-nighter with him just so that his analysis worked.
Credit: Ulrich Heintz
Narain at her home in Providence, RI, in May 2020.
In 2006, Narain joined the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) at CERN in Switzerland, where she built off her experience at D-zero to search for physics beyond the Standard Model with top quarks. To do these analyses, Narain also adopted what were, at the time, novel analytical techniques such as boosted decision trees, a form of machine learning.
As a physicist, Narain was supremely organized. “She had these spreadsheets … and she could always answer every question: ‘This is gonna take that long’ and ‘you need that many people,’” Heintz says. “She had an organizational talent — it started privately from organizing parties … she loved to have a big celebration for Diwali, or Holi.”
Narain also leveraged these organizational skills to push for changes in CMS. Using her influence as chair of the U.S. CMS Collaboration Board, Narain got the group to change its procedure for filling leadership roles so that diversity — of gender, geography, race, and more — were all considered. “She made a huge difference there because she would really question everything in the process,” says Bose. In addition to her advocacy within CMS, Narain helped establish research opportunities for students from HBCUs and organized conferences for women in physics.
In 2020, Narain was diagnosed with cancer as she began working on the Snowmass process to plan the next decades of particle physics. “She dedicated herself to it,” Heintz says. “I think it was a way of forgetting the misery of chemotherapy.” The Energy Frontier report contains her vision for the next several decades, one in which the Higgs is scrutinized to its fullest extent, and powerful new colliders explore energies above 10 TeV. “This report will be one of her enduring legacies, and a result of her guidance, leadership and vision,” its dedication reads. “We will miss her.”
“We lost a real giant,” Black says. “A person who really just had the energy and the capacity and the strength to keep on pushing for what she thought was right.”
Daniel Garisto is a writer based in New York.
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