Hymn to HERMES

6 September 2022

The HERMES experiment – A Personal Story, by Richard Milner and Erhard Steffens, World Scientific

HERMES detector

One hundred years ago, Otto Stern and Walther Gerlach performed their ground-breaking experiment shooting silver atoms through an inhomogeneous magnetic field, separating them according to their spatially quantised angular momentum. It was a clear victory of quantum theory over the still widely used classical picture of the atom. The results also paved the way to the introduction of the concept of spin, an intrinsic angular momentum, as an inherent property of subatomic particles. 

The idea of spin was met with plenty of scepticism. Abraham Pais noted in his book George Uhlenbeck and the Discovery of Electron Spin that Ralph Kronig finishing his PhD at Columbia University in 1925 and travelling through Europe, introduced the idea to Heisenberg and Pauli, who dryly commented that “it is indeed very clever but of course has nothing to do with reality”. Feeling ridiculed, Kronig dropped the idea. A few months later, still against strong resistance by established experts but this time with sufficient backing by their mentor Paul Ehrenfest, Leiden graduate-students George Uhlenbeck and Samuel Goudsmit published their seminal Nature paper on the “spinning” electron. “In the future I shall trust my own judgement more and that of others less,” wrote Kronig in a letter to Hendrik Kramers in March 1926.

Spin crisis

Spin quickly became a cornerstone of 20th-century physics. Related works of paramount importance were Pauli’s exclusion principle and Dirac’s description of relativistic spin-1/2 particles, as well as the spin-statistics theorems (namely the Fermi–Dirac and Bose–Einstein distributions for identical half-integer–spin and integer–spin particles, respectively). But more than half a century after its introduction, spin re-emerged as a puzzle. By then, a rather robust theoretical framework, the Standard Model, had been established within which many precision calculations became a comfortable standard. It could have been all that simple: since the proton consists of two valence-up and one valence-down quarks, with spin up and down (i.e. parallel and antipara­llel to the proton’s spin, respectively), the origin of its spin is easily explained. The problem dubbed “spin crisis” arose in the late 1980s, when the European Muon Collaboration at CERN found that the contribution of quarks to the proton spin was consistent with zero, within the then still-large uncertainties, and that the so-called Ellis–Jaffe sum rule – ultimately not fundamental but model-dependent – was badly violated. What had been missed?

Today, after decades of intense experimental and theoretical work, our picture of the proton and its spin emerging from high-energy interactions has changed substantially. The role of gluons both in unpolarised and polarised protons is non-trivial. More importantly, transverse degrees of freedom, both in position and momentum space, and the corresponding role of orbital angular momentum, have become essential ingredients in the modern description of the proton structure. This description goes beyond the picture of collinearly moving partons encapsulated by the fraction of the parent proton’s momentum and the scale at which they are probed; numerous effects, unexplainable in the simple picture, have now become theoretically accessible.

Understanding the mysteries 

The HERMES experiment at DESY, which operated between 1995 and 2007, has been a pioneer in unravelling the mysteries of the proton spin, and the experiment is the protagonist in a new book by Richard Milner and Erhard Steffens, two veterans in this field as well as the driving forces behind HERMES. The subtitle and preface clarify that this is a personal account and recollection of the history of HERMES, from an emergent idea on both sides of the Atlantic to a nascent collaboration and experiment, and finally as an extremely successful addition to the physics programme of HERA (the world’s only lepton–proton collider, which started running at DESY 30 years ago for one and a half decades). 

Milner and Steffens are both experts on polarised gas targets, with complementary backgrounds leading to rather different perspectives. Indeed, HERMES was independently developed within a North American initiative, in which Milner was the driving force, and a European initiative around the Heidelberg MPI-K led by Klaus Rith, with Erhard Steffens as a long-time senior group member. In 1988 two independent letters of intent submitted to DESY triggered sufficient interest in the idea of a fixed-target experiment with a polarised gas target internal to the HERA lepton ring; the proponents were subsequently urged to collaborate in submitting a common proposal. In the meantime, HERMES’ feasibility needed to be demonstrated. A sufficiently high lepton-polarisation had to be established, as well as smooth running of a polarised gas target in the harsh HERA environment without disturbing the machine and the main HERA experiments H1 and Zeus. 

By summer 1993, HERMES was fully approved, and in 1995 the data taking started with polarised 3He. The subsequently used target of polarised hydrogen or deuterium employed the same concepts that Stern and Gerlach had already used in their famous experiment. The next decade saw several upgrades and additions to the physics programme, and data taking continued until summer 2007. In all those years, the backbone of HERMES was an intense and polarised lepton beam that traversed a target of pure gas in a storage cell, highly polarised or unpolarised, avoiding extensive and in parts model-dependent corrections. This constellation was combined with a detector that, from the very beginning, was designed to not only detect the scattered leptons but also the “spray” produced in coincidence. These features allowed a diverse set of processes to be studied, leading to numerous pioneering measurements and insights that motivated, and continue to motivate, new experimental programmes around the world, including some at CERN.

Richard Milner and Erhard Steffens provide extensive insights, in particular into the historic aspects of HERMES, which are difficult to obtain elsewhere. The book gives an insightful discussion of the installation of the experiment and of the outstanding efforts of a group of highly motivated and dedicated individuals who worked too often in complete ignorance of (or in defiance of) standard working hours. Their account enthrals the reader with vivid anecdotes, surprising twists and personal stories, all told in a colloquial style. While clearly not meant as a textbook – indeed, one might notice small mistakes and inconsistencies in a few places – this book makes for worthwhile and enjoyable reading, not only for people familiar with the subject but equally for outsiders. In particular, younger generations of physicists working in large-scale collaborations might be surprised to learn that it needs only a small group and little time to start an experiment that goes on to have a tremendous impact on our understanding of nature’s basic constituents.

bright-rec iop pub iop-science physcis connect