Destrehan native Francis Robicheaux Jr. recently received a phone call containing a bit of rare – and welcome – information.
“It’s rare to have one of those weird ideas that actually end up working out,” Robicheaux said.
The call came from Auburn University professor Stuart Loch, his former colleague while the two were at Auburn. Loch informed him one of his physics students – who is now a graduate – recently found evidence of a new atomic process, proving a theory that was made a decade ago by Robicheaux, now a professor at Purdue University.
“Every now and then, you come up with something that you think people haven’t thought of before, but then you find someone has or if they haven’t, it’s for a good reason. So this was the fun type of thing that doesn’t happen very often,” he said.
Robicheaux’s theory focused on what is known as the “recombination process,” which refers to electrons combining with atomic nuclei to form atoms. Prior to recombination, the universe was filled with a plasma of electrically charged particles. The theory posed the question of how atoms might lose or recapture electrons when exposed to cold gases in the universe.
“We looked around for a bunch of different possible atoms that could show an enhanced grabbing of electrons, and we found a couple of different candidates (10 years ago),” Robicheaux said. “Stuart and his students went out and looked for a bunch of places these (kinds of atoms) could be and they found it. They looked at whether that enhancement would be possible and how.”
Loch and his students found evidence, with the major find credited to Ahmad Bassam Ahmed Nemer, giving verification to the theory posed in 2010. According to a story on the discovery on the Alabama Newscenter website, the find has atomic physicists eager to see if it could unlock answers to a key cosmological question about the evolution of stars and other objects in the universe.
“Stuart and his students did the heavy lifting,” Robicheaux said, also noting several others including Loch worked with him to formulate the original theory 10 years ago. “I was happy when I thought this was even just a possibility, and now it’s as I thought it was, and it’s even better. There are a lot of times you come up with something and it goes nowhere, but this time it actually worked out.
“When (Loch) called me and told me he was sending the data to be published, I was very excited. That was a really fun conversation.”
Robicheaux is the son of former Destrehan High School principal Frank Robicheaux. He recalls that growing up, he was always a strong math student while attending St. Charles Borromeo school and then St. Charles Catholic High School – naturally, perhaps, as both Frank and mother Laura were math teachers.
By the time he got to college, he started to see his attention turn to physics.
“I think I kind of stumbled into it,” Robicheaux said. “There was a little something I wanted to work on that I was interested in, and that led to something else, and that led to something else. I like that every time you ask a question, it seems like a bunch more pop up. Then you turn around and you’ve been doing it for 30 years. I’ve been lucky that every time something finished up for me, something else interesting replaced it.”