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Fermilab | Batavia, IL | USA

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A teaching moment on the sea

Cosmic rays collide with the Earth's atmosphere and rain down secondary particles.

Editor’s note: Bob’s most excellent particle detector adventure, part 6.

 Bob Peterson continues to travel with his QuarkNet particle detector around the edge of Africa recording remnants of cosmic rays. This offers a chance to study how cosmic ray recordings differ on land and sea and at different latitudes. The data will be accessible to high school students and teachers in several countries who use similar detectors to learn about particle physics.  

Read his previous posts here: The voyage begins, Turning the detector on, Other science on the sea, Particle detectors don’t like light, Enduring a branding for science

8 May 2011
R/V Polarstern
Latitude: 23-13.3 N
Longitude: 20-29.1 W
off the coast of Mauritania
Ship course 21° T
Ship velocity 6.1 knots

8 May:
The ship, scientists, officers and crew have settled into routines. All have learned where things are located, the best time to get tasks done and whom to ask for help. Unfortunately, no one can help the cosmic ray muon detector.

The photo multiplier tube connected to channel four finally gave up the ghost, and I had to put it to sleep. I unplugged it.
The severed wires refused to stay connected even with jury-rigged foam, tape and flotsam. Channel four would record for a short while then would drop off line and the data flow would stop. So, data-taking will continue with three channels and three-fold coincidence. That should hold through the end of the voyage.

Part of the ship’s routine includes evening science talks given by researchers on board. I was the first and surprised everyone. Instead of talking about cosmic-ray science, I spoke about QuarkNet and how it supports authentic learning by helping students study cosmic rays in the classroom. After all, I am a teacher.

One example of how a cosmic ray detector can transfer data to a computer and upload to the e-Lab. Credit: Fermilab

The room full of scientists resonated with the QuarkNet approach, which provides support for particle physicists at universities and national laboratories to form long-term collaborations with local high school teachers. High school students analysis real-time cosmic ray muon data and share their results online with students around the globe in e-Labs, just like today’s international science collaborations.

My onboard companions understood immediately the value of giving teachers and students genuine research experiences Students build their detectors from scratch just as physicists do. You won’t find the step-by-step directions you find on furniture or toys such as “part A goes in slot A.” Students learn problem-solving skills they’ll use in everyday life as they figure out how to put the detector together, finding the best location in the high school for it and forging partnerships with groups at school. One group had to work with its IT department to figure out how to get approval to put a hole in a wall so that they could get their antenna on the south side of the building where the GPS satellite signal was best for connecting to the data acquisition system. It takes ingenuity to make it work. But that’s what makes the program so great.

It was an easy talk to give as I have beena happy warrior for QuarkNet since joining the program In 2004. From colleagues Tom Jordan and Marge Bardeen, I quickly learned the worth of letting QuarkNet users “ask their own questions” and design their research approaches. It is nice to offer such a rich project as cosmic-ray research because there remain many open-ended questions for teachers and students to chew on.

Teachers in Idaho transport a cosmic ray detector to various altitudes on a mountain to compare the number of particle interactions. Courtesy of Bob Peterson

Part of my purpose onboard the R/V Polarstern is to gather a unique data set to add to the Cosmic Ray e-Lab where students can analyze data. This data will join data contributed from IceCube at the South Pole and other data from the Polarstern on previous trips.  The e-Lab offers friendly data-analysis tools, guides teachers and students to develop quality research questions and encourages them to support conclusions with evidence. We modeled the approach on the professional life of scientists, especially particle physicists. Students upload data from their classroom cosmic ray muon detector. The e-Lab provides analysis tools and lowers the threshold to understanding the physics embedded in the data. The hardware and e-Lab couple tightly together as a complete science education experience.

Right now, over 200 cosmic ray muon detectors s have been distributed in the United States; another 100 international. You can find QuarkNet participants in: Brazil, Canada, China, France, The Republic of Georgia, Great Britain, India, Mexico, Japan, Poland, Puerto Rico, Russia, Singapore and Thailand.

All this data offer students plenty of research options. For example, during the last solar maximum QuarkNet had no cosmic ray detectors in classrooms. With detectors now in place, users are ready to examine the effect of solar storms on cosmic-ray flux. Many other questions are possible, such as looking for cosmic-ray shower coincidence or how well a detector is performing.

The Polarstern seems to be ahead of schedule for we have slowed down and changed course headed for Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. We arrive on 10 May for a quick stay to pick up additional science crew; no shore leave allowed. Too bad.

The sea state has continued “on the nose”. With the northeast trade winds of 15-18 knots and a forward speed of 12 knots, that makes it 30 knots over the deck. That’s hard to stand with the ship’s motion. The Atlantic remains immense in my view. 19 days at sea and I saw my first jet contrail today. I have yet to see another ship. They promise there will be plenty as we approach the English Channel.

*Flotsam: the wreckage of a ship or its cargo found floating on the sea.

*Coincidences: The cosmic ray muon detector looks for what we call coincidences, two signals, one from each photo multiplier tubes, received within a short time. These are reported to the computer; all other signals are vetoed as likely background noise from the photo multiplier tubes

*Jet contrail: The condensation trail left behind jet aircraft.

Related information:

A blog written by Wisconsin university students on the first data taking boat trip.

Read how they explained their trip while visiting Washington DC.

—  Bob Peterson


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