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Hunting dark matter atom

Dark matter is an elusive substance that appears to make up more than a quarter of the universe but is fundamentally different from the matter we see around us everyday. So far, we know that dark matter exists but we don’t know much about its properties. Many theoretical options exist – and none of them are easy to test for because dark matter particles interact very rarely with the type of matter that makes up our world.

Dark matters: creation from annihilation

By Alex Millar | November 13, 2014
Alternatives to the classic scenario in which dark matter is made up of WIMPs (weakly interacting massive particles) are becoming increasingly important.

Have we detected dark matter axions?

By Sally Shaw | October 22, 2014
An interesting headline piqued my interest when browsing the social networking and news website Reddit the other day. It simply said: “The first direct detection of dark matter particles may have been achieved.”
 Well, that was news to me! 
Obviously, the key word here is “may.”

How do we know dark matter exists?

By CERN | June 26, 2013
Some of you may have heard of dark matter, this mysterious type of matter that no one can see but makes 27% of the content of the Universe while visible matter (you, me, all stars and galaxies) accounts for only 5%. How do we know it really exists? In fact, its existence is confirmed in many different ways.

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This article appeared in Fermilab Today on Nov. 18, 2014.

Stanley Wojcicki

Stanley Wojcicki

In late October, the American Physical Society Division of Particles and Fields announced that Stanford University professor emeritus of physics and Fermilab collaborator Stanley Wojcicki has been selected as the 2015 recipient of the W.K.H. Panofsky Prize in experimental particle physics. Panofsky, who died in 2007, was SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory’s first director, holding that position from 1961 to 1984.

“I knew Pief Panovsky for about 40 years, and I think he was a great man not only as a scientist, but also as a statesman and as a human being,” said Wojcicki, referring to Panofsky by his nickname. “So it doubles my pleasure and satisfaction in receiving an award that bears his name.”

Wojcicki was given the prestigious award “for his leadership and innovative contributions to experiments probing the flavor structure of quarks and leptons, in particular for his seminal role in the success of the MINOS long-baseline neutrino experiment.”

Wojcicki is a founding member of MINOS. He served as spokesperson from 1999 to 2004 and as co-spokesperson from 2004 to 2010.

“I feel a little embarrassed being singled out because, in high-energy physics, there is always a large number of individuals who have contributed and are absolutely essential to the success of the experiment,” he said. “This is certainly true of MINOS, where we had and have a number of excellent people.”

Wojcicki recalls the leadership of Caltech physicist Doug Michael, former MINOS co-spokesperson, who died in 2005.

“I always regret that Doug did not have a chance to see the results of an experiment that he very much contributed to,” Wojcicki said.

In 2006, MINOS measured an important parameter related to the mass difference between two neutrino types.

Fermilab physicist Doug Glenzinski chaired the Panofsky Prize review committee and says that the committee was impressed by Wojcicki’s work on flavor physics, which focuses on how particles change from one type to another, and his numerous contributions over decades of research.

“He is largely credited with making MINOS happen, with thinking about ways to advance neutrino measurements and with playing an active role in all aspects of the experiment from start to finish,” Glenzinski said.

More than 30 years ago, Wojcicki collaborated on charm quark research at Fermilab, later joining Fermilab’s neutrino explorations. Early on Wojcicki served on the Fermilab Users Executive Committee from 1969-71 and on the Program Advisory Committee from 1972-74. He has since been on many important committees, including serving as chair of the High-Energy Physics Advisory Panel for six years and as member of the P5 committee from 2005-08. He now continues his involvement in neutrino physics, participating in the NOvA and MINOS+ experiments.

“I feel really fortunate to have been connected with Fermilab since its inception,” Wojcicki said. “I think Fermilab is a great lab, and I hope it will continue as such for many years to come.”

Rich Blaustein


Hanging around a pool table might seem like an odd place to learn physics, but a couple of hours on our department’s slanted table could teach you a few things about asymmetry. The third time a pool ball flew off the table and hit the far wall I knew something was broken. The pool table’s refusal to obey the laws of physics gives aspiring physicists a healthy distrust of the simplified mechanics they learnt in undergrad. Whether in explaining why pool balls bounce sideways off lumpy cushions or why galaxies exist, asymmetries are vital to understanding the world around us. Looking at dark matter theories that interact asymmetrically with visible matter can give us new clues as to why matter exists.

Alternatives to the classic WIMP (weakly interacting massive particles) dark matter scenario are becoming increasingly important. Natural supersymmetry is looking less and less likely, and could be ruled out in 2015 by the Large Hadron Collider. Asymmetric dark matter theories provide new avenues to search for dark matter and help explain where the material in our universe comes from -baryogenesis. Baryogenesis is in some ways a more important cosmological problem than dark matter. The Standard Model of particle physics describes all the matter that you are familiar with, from trees to stars, but fails to explain how this matter came to be. In fact, the Standard Model predicts a sparsely populated universe, where most of the matter and antimatter has long since annihilated each another. In particle colliders, whenever a particle of matter is created, an opposing particle of antimatter is also created. Antimatter is matter with all its charges reversed, like a photo negative. While it is often said that opposites attract, in the particle physics world opposites annihilate. But when we look at the universe around us, all we see is matter. There are no antistars and antiplanets, no antihumans living on some distant world. So if matter and antimatter are always created together, how did this happen? If there were equal amounts of matter and antimatter, each would annihilate the other in the first fractions of a second and our universe would be stillborn. The creation of this asymmetry between matter and antimatter is known as baryogenesis, and is one of the strongest cosmological confirmations of physics beyond the Standard Model. The exact amount of asymmetry determines how much matter, and consequently how many stars and galaxies, exists now.

And what about the other 85% of matter in the universe? This dark matter has only shown itself through gravitational interactions, but it has shaped the evolution of the universe. Dark matter keeps galaxies from tearing themselves apart, and outnumbers visible matter five to one. Five to one is a curious ratio. If dark and visible matter were entirely different substances with a completely independent history, you would not expect almost the same amount of dark and normal matter. This is like counting the number of trees in the world and finding that it’s the same as the number of pebbles. While we know that dark and visible matter are not the same substance (the Standard Model does not include any dark matter candidates), this similarity cannot be ignored. The similarity in abundances between dark and visible matter implies that they were caused by the same mechanism, created in the same way. As the abundance of matter is determined by the asymmetry between antimatter and matter, this leads us to a relationship between baryogenesis and dark matter.

Asymmetric dark matter theories have attracted significant attention in the last few years, and are now studied by physicists across the world. This has give us a cornucopia of asymmetric dark matter theories. Despite this, there are several common threads and predictions that allow us to test many of them at once. In asymmetric dark matter theories baryogenesis is caused by interactions between dark and normal matter. By having dark matter interact differently with matter and antimatter, we can get marginally more matter in the universe then antimatter. After the matter and antimatter annihilate each other, there is some minuscule amount of matter left standing. These leftovers go on to become the universe you know. Typically, a similar asymmetry in dark matter and its antiparticle is also made, so there is a similar amount of dark matter left over as well. This promotes dark matter from being a necessary, yet boring spectator in the cosmic tango to an active participant, saving our universe from desolation. Asymmetric dark matter also provides new ways to search for dark matter, such as neutrinos generated from dark matter in the sun. As asymmetric dark matter interacts with normal matter, large bodies like the sun and the earth can capture a reservoir of dark matter, sitting at their core. This can generate ghostlike neutrinos, or provide an obstacle for dark matter in direct detection experiments. Asymmetric dark matter theories can also tell us where we do not expect to see dark matter. A large effort has been made to see tell-tale signs of dark matter annihilating with its antiparticle throughout the universe, but it is yet to meet with success. While experiments like the Fermi space telescope have found potential signals (such as a 130 GeV line in 2012), these signals are ambiguous or fail to survive the test of time. The majority of asymmetric dark matter theories predict that there is no signal, as all the anti dark matter has long since been destroyed.

As on the pool table, even little asymmetries can have a profound effect on what we see. While much progress is made from finding new symmetries, we can’t forget the importance of imperfections in science. Asymmetric dark matter can explain where the matter in our universe came from, and gives dark and normal matter a common origin. Dark matter is no longer a passive observer in the evolution of our universe; it plays a pivotal role in the world around us.


This article appeared in DOE Pulse on Nov. 10, 2014.

Fermilab's Oliver Gutsche leads worldwide computing operations for the CMS experiment. Photo: Reidar Hahn

Fermilab’s Oliver Gutsche leads worldwide computing operations for the CMS experiment. Photo: Reidar Hahn

Since he was a graduate student in Germany, Oliver Gutsche wanted to combine research in particle physics with computing for the large experiments that probe the building blocks of matter.

“When I started working on the physics data coming from one of the experiments at DESY, I was equally interested in everything that had to do with large-scale computing,” said Gutsche of his time at the German laboratory. Gutsche now works at DOE’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. “So I also began working on the computing side of particle physics. For me that was always the combination I wanted to do.”

Gutsche’s desire to merge the two focuses has paid off. For the past four years Gutsche has been in charge of worldwide computing operations of the Large Hadron Collider’s CMS experiment, one of two experiments credited with the 2012 Higgs boson discovery. In December he was awarded the CMS Collaboration Award for his contributions to the global CMS computing system. And more recently, he has been promoted to assistant head of the Scientific Computing Division at Fermilab.

As head of CMS Computing Operations, Gutsche orchestrates data processing, simulations, data analysis and transfers and manages infrastructure and many more central tasks. Monte Carlo simulations of particle interactions, for example, are a key deliverable of the CMS Computing Operations group. Monte Carlo simulations employ randomness to simulate the collisions of the LHC and their products in a statistical way.

“You have to simulate the randomness of nature,” explained Gutsche. “We need Monte Carlo collisions to make sure we understand the data recorded by the CMS experiment and to compare them to the theory.”

When Gutsche received his Ph.D. from the University of Hamburg in 2005, he was looking for a job to combine LHC work, large-scale computing and a U.S. postdoc experience.

“Fermilab was an ideal place to do LHC physics research and LHC computing at the same time,” he said. His postdoc work led to his appointment as an application physicist at Fermilab and as the CMS Computing Operations lead.

Today Gutsche interacts regularly with people at universities and laboratories across the United States and at CERN, host laboratory of the LHC, often starting the day at 7 a.m. for transatlantic or transcontinental meetings.

“I try to talk physics and computing with everyone involved, even those in different time zones, from CERN to the west coast,” he said. Late afternoon in the United States is a good time for writing code. “That’s when everything quiets down and Europe is asleep.”

Gutsche expects to further enhance the cooperation between U.S. particle physicists and their international colleagues, mostly in Europe, by using the new premier U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Sciences Network recently announced in anticipation of the LHC’s restart in spring 2015 at higher energy.

Helping connect the research done by particle physicists around the world, Gutsche finds excitement in all the work he does.

“Of course the Higgs boson discovery was very exciting,” Gutsche said. “But in CMS Computing Operations everything is exciting because we prepare the basis for hundreds of physics analyses so far and many more to come, not only for the major discoveries.”

Rich Blaustein


On Saturday, I went to see Interstellar at the London BFI IMAX. I wouldn’t usually be so extravagant; my usual cinema trips are on 2-for-1 Orange Wednesdays. But I felt Interstellar was worth seeing in all its IMAX high resolution glory – and it definitely was.  The film, directed by Christopher Nolan, is an epic masterpiece describing the journey of Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a pilot-turned farmer-turned pilot again out of our galaxy in search of a new home for humans. The Earth is blighted by, well, blight, and the human race is starving. It paints a grim picture of our potential future here on Earth, and it seems entirely plausible.

The black hole featured in Interstellar. Equations from physicist Kip Thorne were used to model the lensing of light around the black hole.

The black hole featured in Interstellar. Equations from physicist Kip Thorne were used to model the lensing of light around the black hole.

Interstellar did an excellent job of using physics. This should be expected – the filmmakers worked with prominent theorist Kip Thorne. Thorne has worked on all those delicious-sounding areas of cosmology that I wish I had the brains for – black holes, wormholes, quantum gravity, gravitational waves, relativistic stars, etc. Genuine equations were used to visualise the black hole and wormhole featured in Interstellar – a fact that the majority of the audience would not know or particularly care about, but satisfies physicists. There is something to be said for not straying too far from real science in films when we live in a world plagued by quack-science that has tarred the word quantum (for examples, just search for quantum healing, or note that searching for quantum crystals brings up a site for buying “quantum balance crystals” before it brings up anything related to quantum mechanics and solid-state physics).

I was surprised to find posts on the internet “explaining” Interstellar. The film wrapped everything up nicely in my opinion. But most people haven’t done a course in General Relativity! I don’t pretend to be any sort of expert, it was 2 years ago and I can barely remember the maths but I do know the basic concept of gravitational time dilation. It is this, it seems, that was confusing people – how time was passing at a different rate for those on Earth and those in space.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but Cooper ends up close to a black hole (aptly named “Gargantua”), where time runs much more slowly for him than anyone further away. This is a strange and frightening thought for us humans who spend our lives moving consistently forwards in time at the same rate (at least within our perception). In reality, you are ageing slightly faster at the top of a skyscraper than you are at the Earth’s surface – but the effect is too small to notice. It is, however, definitely there. General and special relativity are used to correct the time given by GPS satellites – they are in a weaker gravitational field than we are down on Earth, and so their clocks run slightly faster. Without this correction, GPS would not work.

To understand relativity, you need to remember that time is just another dimension, a fact that becomes important later in the film. Like our 3D space is warped around a massive object, so is time. The foundations of general relativity lie in something called the “equivalence principle”. Einstein himself wrote this as:

“A little reflection will show that the law of the equality of the inertial and gravitational mass is equivalent to the assertion that the acceleration imparted to a body by a gravitational field is independent of the nature of the body.


A geodesic is a path minimising line connecting two points on a sphere. Everything falling under gravity is following one of these lines in curved space-time.

What this means is that under gravity, all things will accelerate at the same rate, independent of their mass. We see this on Earth, where that rate of acceleration is 9.81m/s. A feather and a rock dropped together reach the ground at the same moment (ignoring air resistance!).

Next, Einstein deduced that an object in “free-fall”, i.e. an object with only gravity acting upon it, is not actually accelerating - there is no force of gravity. This was actually one of those rare “my mind is blown” moments I had during my degree.  An object in free-fall is not accelerating – it is simply following a geodesic in curved space-time. A geodesic is the analogy to a straight line within curved space – think if it as the shortest path between two points on a sphere.

I’m going a bit off tangent here, but general relativity is a fascinating subject! What I wanted to get to is the time dilation part. Why does time run slower for someone in a strong gravitational field? It actually comes back to special relativity, general relativity’s less scary little brother. I was taught special relativity in the first year of my degree, and it was the first time I felt like I was learning real exciting physics. The postulates of SR are:

  • The laws of physics are the same in all inertial frames of reference.
  • The speed of light in free space has the same value c in all inertial frames of reference.
A beam of light in an accelerating rocket appears curved to an outside observer. This would be the same for a free-falling laboratory.

A beam of light in an accelerating rocket appears curved to an outside observer. This would be the same for a free-falling laboratory.

Combining the principle of a freely-falling (i.e. travelling on a geodesic in a gravitational field) laboratory and applying special relativity introduces time dilation. The Pound and Rebka experiment is helpful to read up on for understanding this. By the laws of SR, both an observer inside the laboratory and one outside should measure the speed of light as c. Imagine a beam of light in the laboratory, the observer outside sees the path of light bend as the laboratory falls, whilst the observer inside sees a straight line as they are in an inertial frame. This means that for the outside observer, the light has travelled a longer (curved) path. As light always travels at c, the observer will deduce that more time has passed inside the laboratory than the person inside will measure. The stronger the gravitational field, the faster the free-fall, and the more the light will appear curved to the outside observer – so the time dilation factor increases with the field strength.

The strength of the black hole’s field in Interstellar means that minutes for Cooper become years for those outside. He is “free-falling” at an incredible rate, so his clock is running thousands of times slower than the ones on Earth, but it feels totally normal to him. He sees his own clock running at a normal speed, but he knows that the ones on Earth are running much faster. Emotions run high as every second he spends on his mission could be years he is missing of his children’s’ lives.  I came out of the film an emotional wreck – I’d shed many tears and my chest felt tight, it was genuinely traumatic. Don’t get me wrong, I cry at a lot of films (I even cried when Gandalf died in Lord of the Rings, even though I’d read the books and so knew he was fine.) but I’ve never left one still feeling so upset. But that helps make it a brilliant film – not just the special effects, the beautiful images of space and stars and black holes, but the human reality; at the end of the day, it is just a father fighting to save his children.

I strongly recommend you go see this film, whether you are a physicist or not. I could go on for a lot longer and discuss the paradoxes some of the wormhole travel introduces as well as some other puzzles, but that would reveal spoilers, so instead I’ll just stop here!  Interstellar is heartbreaking, but also breathtaking, and also warns us to take care of our planet. It’s not so easy to find another, and for god’s sake don’t stop investing in science! Make sure you bring tissues.



This blog is all about particle physics and particle physicists. We can all agree, I suppose, on the notion of the particle physicist, right? There are even plenty of nice pictures up here! But do we know or are we aware of what a particle really is? This fundamental question tantalized me from the very beginning of my studies and before addressing more involved topics I think it is worth spending some time on this concept. Through the years I probably changed my opinion several times, according to the philosophy underlying the topic that I was investigating. Moreover, there’s probably not a single answer to this question.

  1. The Standard Model: from geometry to detectors

The human mind conceived the Standard Model of Particle Physics to give a shape on the blackboard to the basic ingredients of particle physics: it is a field theory, with quantization rules, namely a quantum field theory and its roots go deep down to differential geometry.
But we know that “particles” like the Higgs boson have been discovered through complex detectors, relying on sophisticated electronic systems, tons of Monte Carlo simulations and data analysis. Quite far away from geometry, isn’t it?
So the question is: how do we fill this gap between theory and experiment? What do theoreticians think about and experimentalists see through the detectors? Furthermore, does a particle’s essence change from its creation to its detection?

  1. Essence and representation: the wavefunction

 Let’s start with simple objects, like an electron. Can we imagine it as a tiny thing floating here and there? Mmm. Quantum mechanics already taught us that it is something more: it does not rotate around an atomic nucleus like the Earth around the Sun (see, e.g., Bohr’s model). The electron is more like a delocalized “presence” around the nucleus quantified by its “wavefunction”, a mathematical function that gives the probability of finding the electron at a certain place and time.
Let’s think about it: I just wrote that the electron is not a localized entity but it is spread in space and time through its wavefunction. Fine, but I still did not say what an electron is.

I have had long and intensive discussions about this question. In particular I remember one with my housemate (another theoretical physicist) that was about to end badly, with the waving of frying pans at each other. It’s not still clear to me if we agreed or not, but we still live together, at least.

Back to the electron, we could agree on considering its essence as its abstract definition, namely being one of the leptons in the Standard Model. But the impossibility of directly accessing it forces me to identify it with its most trustful representation, namely the wavefunction. I know its essence, but I cannot directly (i.e. with my senses) experience it. My human powers stop to the physical manifestation of its mathematical representation: I cannot go further.
Renè Magritte represented the difference between the representation of an object and the object itself in a famous painting “The treachery of images”:


“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”, it says, namely “This is not a pipe”. He is right, the picture is its representation. The pipe is defined as “A device for smoking, consisting of a tube of wood, clay, or other material with a small bowl at one end” and we can directly experience it. So its representation is not the pipe itself.

As I explained, this is somehow different in the case of the electron or other particles, where experience stops to the representation. So, according to my “humanity”, the electron is its wavefunction. But, to be consistent with what I just claimed: can we directly feel its wavefunction? Yes, we can. For example we can see its trace in a cloud chamber, or more elaborate detectors. Moreover, electricity and magnetism are (partly) manifestations of electron clouds in matter, and we experience those in everyday life.


You may wonder why I go through all these mental wanderings: just write down your formulas, calculate and be happy with (hopefully!) discoveries.

I do it because philosophy matters. And is nice. And now that we are a bit more aware of the essence of things that we are investigating, we can move a step forward and start addressing Quantum Chromo Dynamics (QCD), from its basic foundations to the latest results released by the community. I hope to have sufficiently stimulated your curiosity to follow me during the next steps!

Again, I want to stress that this is my own perspective, and maybe someone else would answer these questions in a different way. For example, what do you think?


Cool Little Neutrinos

Thursday, November 6th, 2014

A lot of us working in experimental neutrino physics think that these strange and tiny particles are pretty cool. Here are some fun facts about them from Fermilab physicist, and old classmate of mine, Tia Miceli. (Originally from Fermilab Today)

Neutrinos change their flavor just as chameleons can change color. The observer needs to make sure their instruments are prepared to detect these changing beasts.

We don’t know much about neutrinos, but what we do know points to renegade particles that, despite their prevalence, are hard to pin down. Here are, in a nutshell, nine neutrino nuggets that scientists have figured out so far.

1. Neutrinos are super abundant. The shining sun sends 65 billion neutrinos per second per square centimeter to Earth. Neutrinos are the second most abundant particle in the universe. If we were to take a snapshot, we’d see that every cubic centimeter has approximately 1,000 photons and 300 neutrinos.

2. Neutrinos are almost massless. No one yet knows the mass of neutrinos, but it is at least a million times less massive than the lightest particle we know, the electron. We do know that each is so lightweight and so abundant that the total mass of all neutrinos in the universe is estimated to be equal to the total mass of all of the visible stars.

3. Neutrinos are perfect probes for the weak force. All other fundamental particles interact through the strong, electromagnetic or weak force or through some combination of the three. Neutrinos are the only particles that interact solely though the weak force. This makes neutrinos important for nailing down the details of the weak force.

4. Neutrinos are really hard to detect.On average, only one neutrino from the sun will interact with a person’s body during his or her lifetime. Since neutrino interactions are so rare, neutrino detectors must be huge. Super Kamiokande in Japan is as tall as Wilson Hall and holds 50,000 tons of ultrapure water. IceCube is buried between 1.5 and 2.5 kilometers under pure and clear ice in Antarctica, instrumenting a full cubic kilometer of ice.

5. Neutrinos are like chameleons.There are three flavors of neutrinos: electron, muon and tau. As a neutrino travels along, it may switch back and forth between the flavors. These flavor “oscillations” confounded physicists for decades.

6. Neutrinos of electron flavor linger around electrons. When neutrinos travel through matter, they see dense clouds of electrons. Electron neutrinos will have trouble traversing these dense clouds, effectively slowing down while muon and tau flavors travel through unimpeded. The NOvA experiment is using this phenomenon to deduce more information about the neutrino masses.

7. Neutrinos let us see inside the sun.The light that reaches Earth takes 10,000 to 100,000 years to escape the thick plasma of the sun’s core. When light reaches the solar surface, it freely streams through open space to our planet in only 8 minutes. Neutrinos provide us a penetrating view into the core, where nuclear fusion powers the sun. They take only 3.2 seconds to escape to the solar surface and 8 minutes to reach Earth.

8. Neutrinos may have altered the course of the universe. Why is everything in the universe made predominantly of matter and not antimatter? Cosmologists think that at the start of the universe there were equal parts of matter and antimatter. Neutrino interactions may have tipped this delicate balance, enabling the formation of galaxies, stars and planets like our own Earth.

9. Neutrinos dissipate more than 99 percent of a supernova’s energy.Certain types of stellar explosions lose nearly all of their energy through neutrinos. These “core collapse” supernovae end as either a black hole or a neutron star. Neutrinos are used to understand how supernovae explode and tell us more about other astronomical objects like active galactic nuclei.

Tia Miceli




This article appeared in Fermilab Today on Nov. 3, 2014.

A team from the Accelerator Division has successfully powered this small SRF cavity with a magnetron. Now they aim to power a large, application-specific model. Photo: Brian Chase, AD

A team from the Accelerator Division has successfully powered this small SRF cavity with a magnetron. Now they aim to power a large, application-specific model. Photo: Brian Chase, Fermilab

If you own a magnetron, you probably use it to cook frozen burritos. The device powers microwave ovens by converting electricity into electromagnetic radiation. But Fermilab engineers believe they’ve found an even better use. They’ve developed a new technique to use a magnetron to power a superconducting radio-frequency (SRF) cavity, potentially saving hundreds of millions of dollars in the construction and operating costs of future linear accelerators.

The technique is far from market-ready, but recent tests with Accelerator Division RF Department-developed components at the Fermilab AZero test facility have proven that the idea works. Team leaders Brian Chase and Ralph Pasquinelli have, with Fermilab’s Office of Partnerships and Technology Transfer, applied for a patent and are looking for industrial partners to help scale up the process.

Both high-energy physics and industrial applications could benefit from the development of a high-power, magnetron-based RF station. The SRF cavity power source is a major cost of accelerators, but thanks to a long manufacturing history, accelerator-scale magnetrons could be mass-produced at a fraction of the cost of klystrons and other technologies typically used to generate and control radio waves in accelerators.

“Instead of paying $10 to $15 per watt of continuous-wave RF power, we believe that we can deliver that for about $3 per watt,” Pasquinelli said.

That adds up quickly for modern projects like Fermilab’s Proton Improvement Plan II, with more than 100 cavities, or the proposed International Linear Collider, which will call for about 15,000 cavities requiring more than 3 billion watts of pulsed RF power. The magnetron design is also far more efficient than klystrons, further driving down long-term costs.

The magnetron project members are, from left: Brian Chase, Ed Cullerton, Ralph Pasquinelli and Philip Varghese. Photo: Elvin Harms, Fermilab

The magnetron project members are, from left: Brian Chase, Ed Cullerton, Ralph Pasquinelli and Philip Varghese. Photo: Elvin Harms, Fermilab

But the straightforward idea wasn’t without obstacles.

“For an accelerator, you need very precise control of the amplitude and the phase of the signal,” Chase said. That’s on the order of 0.01 percent accuracy. Magnetrons don’t normally allow this kind of control.

One solution, Chase realized, is to apply a well-known mathematical expression known as a Bessel function, developed in the 19th century for astronomical calculations. Chase repurposed the function for the magnetron’s phase modulation scheme, which allowed for a high degree of control over the signal’s amplitude. Similar possible solutions to the amplitude problem use two magnetrons, but doubling most of the hardware would mean negating potential savings.

“Our technique uses one magnetron, and we use this modulation scheme, which has been known for almost a hundred years. It’s just never been put together,” Pasquinelli said. “And we came in thinking, ‘Why didn’t anyone else think of that?'”

Chase and Pasquinelli are now working with Bob Kephart, director of the Illinois Accelerator Research Center, to find an industry partner to help them develop their idea. Inexpensive, controlled RF power is already needed in certain medical equipment, and according to Kephart, driving down the costs will allow new applications to surface, such as using accelerators to clean up flue gas or sterilizing municipal waste.

“The reason I’m not retired is that I want to build this prototype,” Pasquinelli said. “It’s a solution to a real-world problem, and it will be a lot of fun to build the first one.”

Troy Rummler


Costumes to make zombie Einstein proud

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014

This article appeared in symmetry on Oct. 21, 2014.

These physics-themed Halloween costume ideas are sure to entertain—and maybe even educate. Terrifying, we know. Image: Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha

These physics-themed Halloween costume ideas are sure to entertain—and maybe even educate. Terrifying, we know. Image: Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha


So you haven’t picked a Halloween costume, and the big night is fast approaching. If you’re looking for something a little funny, a little nerdy and sure to impress fellow physics fans, look no further. We’ve got you covered.

1. Dark energy

This is an active costume, perfect for the party-goer who plans to consume a large quantity of sugar. Suit up in all black or camouflage, then spend your evening squeezing between people and pushing them apart.

Congratulations! You’re dark energy: a mysterious force causing the accelerating expansion of the universe, intriguing in the lab and perplexing on the dance floor.

2. Cosmic inflation

Theory says that a fraction of a second after the big bang, the universe grew exponentially, expanding so that tiny fluctuations were stretched into the seeds of entire galaxies.

But good luck getting that costume through the door.

Instead, take a simple yellow life vest and draw the cosmos on it: stars, planets, asteroids, whatever you fancy. When friends pull on the emergency tab, the universe will grow.

3. Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

Here’s a great excuse to repurpose your topical Breaking Bad costume from last year.

Walter White—aka “Heisenberg”—may have been a chemistry teacher, but the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is straight out of physics. Named after Werner Heisenberg, a German physicist credited with the creation of quantum mechanics, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states that the more accurately you know the position of a particle, the less information you know about its momentum.

Put on Walter White’s signature hat and shades (or his yellow suit and respirator), but then add some uncertainty by pasting Riddler-esque question marks to your outfit.

4. Bad neutrino

A warning upfront: Only the ambitious and downright extroverted should attempt this costume.

Neutrinos are ghostly particles that pass through most matter undetected. In fact, trillions of neutrinos pass through your body every second without your knowledge.

But you aren’t going to go as any old neutrino. Oh no. You’re a bad neutrino—possibly the worst one in the universe—so you run into everything: lampposts, trees, haunted houses and yes, people. Don a simple white sheet and spend the evening interacting with everyone and everything.

5. Your favorite physics experiment

You physics junkies know that there are a lot of experiments with odd acronyms and names that are ripe for Halloween costumes. You can go as ATLAS (experiment at the Large Hadron Collider / character from Greek mythology), DarkSide (dark matter experiment at Gran Sasso National Laboratory / good reason to repurpose your Darth Vader costume), PICASSO (dark matter experiment at SNOLAB / creator of Cubism), MINERvA (Fermilab neutrino experiment / Roman goddess of wisdom), or the Dark Energy Survey (dark energy camera located at the Blanco Telescope in Chile / good opportunity for a pun).

Physics-loving parents can go as explorer Daniel Boone, while the kids go as neutrino experiments MicroBooNE and MiniBooNE. The kids can wear mini fur hats of their own or dress as detector tanks to be filled with candy.

6. Feynman diagram

You might know that a Feynman diagram is a drawing that uses lines and squiggles to represent a particle interaction. But have you ever noticed that they sometimes look like people? Try out this new take on the black outfit/white paint skeleton costume. Bonus points for going as a penguin diagram.

7. Antimatter

Break out the bell-bottoms and poster board. In bold letters, scrawl the words of your choosing: “I hate things!,” “Stuff is awful!,” and “Down with quarks!” will all do nicely. Protest from house to house and declare with pride that you are antimatter. It’s a fair critique: Physicists still aren’t sure why matter dominates the universe when equal amounts of matter and antimatter should have been created in the big bang.

Fortunately, you don’t have to solve this particular puzzle on your quest for candy. Just don’t high five anyone; you might annihilate.

8. Entangled particles

Einstein described quantum entanglement as “spooky action at a distance”—the perfect costume for Halloween. Entangled particles are extremely strange. Measuring one automatically determines the state of the other, instantaneously.

Find someone you are extremely in tune with and dress in opposite colors, like black and white. When no one is observing you, you can relax. But when interacting with people, be sure to coordinate movements. They spin to the left, you spin to the right. They wave with the right hand? You wave with the left. You get the drill.

You can also just wrap yourselves together in a net. No one said quantum entanglement has to be hard.

9. Holographic you(niverse)

The universe may be like a hologram, according to a theory currently being tested at Fermilab’s Holometer experiment. If so, information about spacetime is chunked into 2-D bits that only appear three-dimensional from our perspective.

Help others imagine this bizarre concept by printing out a photo of yourself and taping it to your front. You’ll still technically be 3-D, but that two-dimensional picture of your face will still start some interesting discussions. Perhaps best not to wear this if you have a busy schedule or no desire to discuss the nature of time and space while eating a Snickers.

10. Your favorite particle

There are many ways to dress up as a fundamental particle. Bring a lamp along to trick-or-treat to go as the photon, carrier of light. Hand out cookies to go as the Higgs boson, giver of mass. Spend the evening attaching things to people to go as a gluon.

To branch out beyond the Standard Model of particle physics, go as a supersymmetric particle, or sparticle: Wear a gladiator costume and shout, “I am Sparticle!” whenever someone asks about your costume.

Or grab a partner to become a meson, a particle made of a quark and antiquark. Mesons are typically unstable, so whenever you unlink arms, be sure to decay in a shower of electrons and neutrinos—or candy corn.

Lauren Biron


Hi there QD readers!

Instead of any further intro about me than my bio for the moment, I’m starting my contribution on this group blog right off with a first post about a movie that I think is going to become a fairly major deal culturally, in the coming weeks and months, and isn’t that partly what science blogging is kind of about — that is, identifying those scientific things that could be important especially to, and have an impact on, the future of our society..?

So, to jump right to it —  I’d been seeing bits of previews of this movie:

(Full description: Interstellar at IMDb )

here and there online, and then there was a post to the KIPAC Facebook page about its scientific accuracy for the black hole depiction, with well-known physicist Kip Thorne’s involvement:


I then saw the preview fully through a couple of days ago, and read more about the background and story arc and reactions to the film — and am impressed, and inspired already by what I’ve seen.

I can see this is a film in the spiritual tradition of Carl Sagan and Contact, and it may be the first movie I go see in a theater in a long while.

It’ll be out on Nov 7, and I’m looking forward to it.

Of course — I can tell I will have some problems with it too already — like with the ideas of indulging in escapism and finding another world vs. doing the hard work of fixing the only one we have — and are going to have, for a long, long time yet, as Carl himself used to point out, which can be read in e.g. the penultimate paragraph of the famous Pale Blue Dot talk, or seen as part of a short 6min clip put into more context here:

But with all that in mind, I am stoked about the positive aspects of what this one is about: inspiring us to be adventurers, showing strong familial bonds, and getting us to act in coordination as a species because of its apocalyptic vision of what the Earth will become if we do not.

So — anyone else also getting enthused about it, just yet..? :-)


I travel a lot for my work in particle physics, but it’s usually the same places over and over again — Fermilab, CERN, sometimes Washington to meet with our gracious supporters from the funding agencies.  It’s much more interesting to go someplace new, and especially somewhere that has some science going on that isn’t particle physics.  I always find myself trying to make connections between other people’s work and mine.

This week I went to a meeting of the Council of the Open Science Grid that was hosted by the Oklahoma University Supercomputing Center for Education and Research in Norman, OK.  It was already interesting that I got to visit Oklahoma, where I had never been before.  (I think I’m up to 37 states now.)  But we held our meeting in the building that hosts the National Weather Center, which gave me an opportunity to take a tour of the center and learn a bit more about how research in meteorology and weather forecasting is done.

OU is the home of the largest meteorology department in the country, and the center hosts a forecast office of the National Weather Service (which produces forecasts for central and western Oklahoma and northern Texas, at the granularity of one hour and one kilometer) and the National Severe Storms Laboratory (which generates storm watches and warnings for the entire country — I saw the actual desk where the decisions get made!).  So how is the science of the weather like and not like the science that we do at the LHC?

(In what follows, I offer my sincere apologies to meteorologists in case I misinterpreted what I learned on my tour!)

Both are fields that can generate significant amounts of data that need to be interpreted to obtain a scientific result.  As has been discussed many times on the blog, each LHC experiment records petabytes of data each year.  Meteorology research is performed by much smaller teams of observers, which makes it hard to estimate their total data volume, but the graduate student who led our tour told us that he is studying a mere three weather events, but he has more than a terabyte of data to contend with — small compared to what a student on the LHC might have to handle, but still significant.

But where the two fields differ is what limits the rate at which the data can be understood.  At the LHC, it’s all about the processing power needed to reconstruct the raw data by performing the algorithms that turn the voltages read out from millions of amplifiers into the energies and momenta of individual elementary particles.  We know what the algorithms for this are, we know how to code them; we just have to run them a lot.  In meteorology, the challenge is getting to the point where you can even make the data interpretable in a scientific sense.  Things like radar readings still need to be massaged by humans to become sensible.  It is a very labor-intensive process, akin to the work done by the “scanner girls” of the particle physics days of yore, who carefully studied film emulsions by eye to identify particle tracks.  I do wonder what the prospects are in meteorology for automating this process so that it can be handed off to humans instead.  (Clearly this has to apply more towards forefront research in the field about how tornadoes form and the like, rather than to the daily weather predictions that just tell you the likelihood of tornado-forming conditions.)

Weather forecasting data is generally public information, accessible by anyone.  The National Weather Service publishes it in a form that has already had some processing done on it so that it can be straightforwardly ingested by others.  Indeed, there is a significant private weather-forecasting industry that makes use of this, and sells products with value added to the NWS data.  (For instance, you could buy a forecast much more granular than that provided by the NWS, e.g. for the weather at your house in ten-minute intervals.)  Many of these companies rent space in buildings within a block of the National Weather Center.  The field of particle physics is still struggling with how to make our data publicly available (which puts us well behind many astronomy projects which make all of their data public within a few years of the original observations).  There are concerns about how to provide the data in a form that will allow people who are not experts to learn something from the data without making mistakes.  But there has been quite a lot of progress in this in recent years, especially as it has been recognized that each particle physics experiment creates a unique dataset that will probably never be replicated in the future.  We can expect an increasing number of public data releases in the next few years.  (On that note, let me point out the NSF-funded Data and Software Preservation for Open Science (DASPOS) project that I am associated with on its very outer edges, which is working on some aspects of the problem.)  However, I’d be surprised if anyone starts up a company that will sell new interpretations of LHC data!

Finally, here’s one thing that the weather and the LHC has in common — they’re both always on!  Or, at least we try to run the LHC for every minute possible when the accelerator is operational.  (Remember, we are currently down for upgrades and will start up again this coming spring.)  The LHC experiments have physicists on on duty 24 hours a day, monitoring data quality and ready to make repairs to the detectors should they be needed.  Weather forecasters are also on shift at the forecasting center and the severe-storm center around the clock.  They are busy looking at data being gathered by their own instruments, but also from other sources.  For instance, when there are reports of tornadoes near Oklahoma City, the local TV news stations often send helicopters out to go take a look.  The forecasters watch the TV news to get additional perspectives on the storm.

Now, if only the weather forecasters on shift could make repairs to the weather just like our shifters can fix the detector!