Peering into a Maya pyramid

Schwitters in the mid-1980s

Roy Schwitters is bringing together the worlds of archeology and physics.

“Roy is kind of the Indiana Jones of high-energy physics,” said Michael Riordan, a long-time friend and chair of the Orcas Currents Steering Committee.

Schwitters is coming to Orcas Island to present an Orcas Currents lecture on “Peering into a Maya Pyramid Using Cosmic Rays.” His multimedia presentation is on Thursday, Aug. 6 and will begin at 5:30 p.m. in Emmanuel Parish Hall in Eastsound. Admission is free.

Schwitters has been at the University of Texas for 25 years. Prior to that, he was a professor of physics at Harvard University, where he was teaching when he received the prestigious Alan T. Waterman Award of the National Science Foundation for important contributions to the discovery of quarks in the mid-1970s. A Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he also was awarded the 1996 Wolfgang K. H. Panofsky Prize of the American Physical Society for this research.

Schwitters has been teaching at the University of Texas for 25 years. Prior to that, he was a professor of physics at Harvard University, where he was teaching when he received the prestigious Alan T. Waterman Award of the National Science Foundation for important contributions to the discovery of quarks in the mid-1970s. A Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he also was awarded the 1996 Wolfgang K. H. Panofsky Prize of the American Physical Society for this research.

Schwitters is a Washington native who grew up in Seattle. While a student at MIT, he became friends with Riordan, who later penned the book “The Hunting of the Quark,” of which Schwitters played a prominent role.  He made crucial contributions to the discovery of the fourth quark, called the “charm quark.”

Schwitters served as director of the Superconducting Super Collider project, which was terminated by Congress in 1993.

He is the central figure in Riordan’s next book, “Tunnel Visions: The Rise and Fall of the Supeconducting Super Collider,” due out this fall from University of Chicago Press.

Schwitters has developed a non-invasive technique to peer inside structures using highly penetrating cosmic-ray particles called muons. In a way, it resembles the use of X-rays to examine human innards in CAT scans.

His Texas research team is currently applying the technique to the study of a Mayan pyramid in the Belize jungle, trying to discern chambers and passages within it. To do so, they have had to build a large photovoltaic array to convert the abundant solar energy into electricity, as no convenient power source is available nearby.

“I got interested in applying the technology I used in my particle physics career to more general issues, including national security and archeology,” Schwitters said. “That led to my collaboration with UT colleagues in archeology, Belize and Maya pyramids … I will talk a little about the history and culture of the Maya and the technology we are developing to ‘see through’ jungle and rock looking for hidden chambers in a large, un-looted pyramid.”

During the presentation, Schwitters will show images of the pyramid taken by cosmic ray particles, not light, as well as photos of the jungle and 1000-year-old Maya relics.

“This story is not finished, but I do hope to relay a little of the excitement of the search,” he said.

Schwitters’ Orcas connection goes way back. He is a Seattle native and every summer he and his family visited the island. His mother Margaret Boyer was raised on Orcas and graduated from the high school in 1932. Last summer he and his wife Karen purchased a second home near Olga, where they expect to retire.