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High school students advance particle physics and their own science education at Fermilab

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

This article appeared in Fermilab Today on Sept. 30, 2014.

Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy students Nerione Agrawal (left) and Paul Nebres (right) work on the Muon g-2 experiment through the Student Inquiry and Research program. Muon g-2 scientist Brendan Kiburg (center) co-mentors the students. Photo: Fermilab

Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy students Nerione Agrawal (left) and Paul Nebres (right) work on the Muon g-2 experiment through the Student Inquiry and Research program. Muon g-2 scientist Brendan Kiburg (center) co-mentors the students. Photo: Fermilab

As an eighth grader, Paul Nebres took part in a 2012 field trip to Fermilab. He learned about the laboratory’s exciting scientific experiments, said hello to a few bison and went home inspired.

Now a junior at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA) in Aurora, Nebres is back at Fermilab, this time actively contributing to its scientific program. He’s been working on the Muon g-2 project since the summer, writing software that will help shape the magnetic field that guides muons around a 150-foot-circumference muon storage ring.

Nebres is one of 13 IMSA students at Fermilab. The high school students are part of the academy’s Student Inquiry and Research program, or SIR. Every Wednesday over the course of a school year, the students use these weekly Inquiry Days to work at the laboratory, putting their skills to work and learning new ones that advance their understanding in the STEM fields.

The program is a win for both the laboratory and the students, who work on DZero, MicroBooNE, MINERvA and electrical engineering projects, in addition to Muon g-2.

“You can throw challenging problems at these students, problems you really want solved, and then they contribute to an important part of the experiment,” said Muon g-2 scientist Brendan Kiburg, who co-mentors a group of four SIR students with scientists Brendan Casey and Tammy Walton. “Students can build on various aspects of the projects over time toward a science result and accumulate quite a nice portfolio.”

This year roughly 250 IMSA students are in the broader SIR program, conducting independent research projects at Argonne National Laboratory, the University of Chicago and other Chicago-area institutions.

IMSA junior Nerione Agrawal, who started in the SIR program this month, uses her background in computing and engineering to simulate the potential materials that will be used to build Muon g-2 detectors.

“I’d been to Fermilab a couple of times before attending IMSA, and when I found out that you could do an SIR at Fermilab, I decided I wanted to do it,” she said. “I’ve really enjoyed it so far. I’ve learned so much in three weeks alone.”

The opportunities for students at the laboratory extend beyond their particular projects.

“We had the summer undergraduate lecture series, so apart from doing background for the experiment, I learned what else is going on around Fermilab, too,” Nebres said. “I didn’t expect the amount of collaboration that goes on around here to be at the level that it is.”

In April, every SIR student will create a poster on his or her project and give a short talk at the annual IMSAloquium.

Kiburg encourages other researchers at the lab to advance their projects while nurturing young talent through SIR.

“This is an opportunity to let a creative person take the reins of a project, steward it to completion or to a point that you could pick up where they leave off and finish it,” he said. “There’s a real deliverable outcome. It’s inspiring.”

Leah Hesla

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Breakthrough: nanotube cathode creates more electron beam than large laser system

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

This article appeared in Fermilab Today on Sept. 22, 2014.

Harsha Panunganti of Northern Illinois University works on the laser system (turned off here) normally used to create electron beams from a photocathode. Photo: Reidar Hahn

Harsha Panunganti of Northern Illinois University works on the laser system (turned off here) normally used to create electron beams from a photocathode. Photo: Reidar Hahn

Lasers are cool, except when they’re clunky, expensive and delicate.

So a collaboration led by RadiaBeam Technologies, a California-based technology firm actively involved in accelerator R&D, is designing an electron beam source that doesn’t need a laser. The team led by Luigi Faillace, a scientist at RadiaBeam, is testing a carbon nanotube cathode — about the size of a nickel — in Fermilab’s High-Brightness Electron Source Lab (HBESL) that completely eliminates the need for a room-sized laser system currently used to generate the electron beam.

Fermilab was sought out to test the experimental cathode because of its capability and expertise for handling intense electron beams, one of relatively few labs that can support this project.

Tests have shown that the vastly smaller cathode does a better job than the laser. Philippe Piot, a staff scientist in the Fermilab Accelerator Division and a joint appointee at Northern Illinois University, says tests have produced beam currents a thousand to a million times greater than the one generated with a laser. This remarkable result means that electron beam equipment used in industry may become not only less expensive and more compact, but also more efficient. A laser like the one in HBESL runs close to half a million dollars, Piot said, about hundred times more than RadiaBeam’s cathode.

The technology has extensive applications in medical equipment and national security, as an electron beam is a critical component in generating X-rays. And while carbon nanotube cathodes have been studied extensively in academia, Fermilab is the first facility to test the technology within a full-scale setting.

“People have talked about it for years,” said Piot, “but what was missing was a partnership between people that have the know-how at a lab, a university and a company.”

The dark carbon-nanotube-coated area of this field emission cathode is made of millions of nanotubes that function like little lightning rods. At Fermilab's High-Brightness Electron Source Lab, scientists have tested this cathode in the front end of an accelerator, where a strong electric field siphons electrons off the nanotubes to create an intense electron beam. Photo: Reidar Hahn

The dark carbon-nanotube-coated area of this field emission cathode is made of millions of nanotubes that function like little lightning rods. At Fermilab’s High-Brightness Electron Source Lab, scientists have tested this cathode in the front end of an accelerator, where a strong electric field siphons electrons off the nanotubes to create an intense electron beam. Photo: Reidar Hahn

Piot and Fermilab scientist Charles Thangaraj are partnering with RadiaBeam Technologies staff Luigi Faillace and Josiah Hartzell and Northern Illinois University student Harsha Panuganti and researcher Daniel Mihalcea. A U.S. Department of Energy Small Business Innovation Research grant, a federal endowment designed to bridge the R&D gap between basic research and commercial products, funds the project. The work represents the kind of research that will be enabled in the future at the Illinois Accelerator Research Center — a facility that brings together Fermilab expertise and industry.

The new cathode appears at first glance like a smooth black button, but at the nanoscale it resembles, in Piot’s words, “millions of lightning rods.”

“When you apply an electric field, the field lines organize themselves around the rods’ extremities and enhance the field,” Piot said. The electric field at the peaks is so intense that it pulls streams of electrons off the cathode, creating the beam.

Traditionally, lasers strike cathodes in order to eject electrons through photoemission. Those electrons form a beam by piggybacking onto a radio-frequency wave, synchronized to the laser pulses and formed in a resonance cavity. Powerful magnets focus the beam. The tested nanotube cathode requires no laser as it needs only the electric field already generated by the accelerator to siphon the electrons off, a process dubbed field emission.

The intense electric field, though, has been a tremendous liability. Piot said critics thought the cathode “was just going to explode and ruin the electron source, and we would be crying because it would be dead.”

One of the first discoveries Piot’s team made when they began testing in May was that the cathode did not, in fact, explode and ruin everything. The exceptional strength of carbon nanotubes makes the project feasible.

Still, Piot continues to study ways to optimize the design of the cathode to prevent any smaller, adverse effects that may take place within the beam assembly. Future research also may focus on redesigning an accelerator that natively incorporates the carbon nanotube cathode to avoid any compatibility issues.

Troy Rummler

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Summer intern studies physics for self, family

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

This article appeared in Fermilab Today on Sept. 16, 2014.

Summer intern Sheri Lopez, here with son Dominic, pursues her love of physics as a student at the University of New Mexico-Los Alamos. She spent this summer at Fermilab as a summer intern. Photo courtesy of Sheri Lopez

Summer intern Sheri Lopez, here with son Dominic, pursues her love of physics as a student at the University of New Mexico-Los Alamos. She spent this summer at Fermilab as a summer intern. Photo courtesy of Sheri Lopez

Dominic is two. He is obsessed with “Despicable Me” and choo-choos. His mom Sheri Lopez is 29, obsessed with physics, and always wanted to be an astronaut.

But while Dominic’s future is full of possibilities, his mom’s options are narrower. Lopez is a single mother and a sophomore at the University of New Mexico-Los Alamos, where she is double majoring in physics and mechanical engineering. Her future is focused on providing for her son, and that plan recently included 10 weeks spent at Fermilab for a Summer Undergraduate Laboratories Internship (SULI).

“Being at Fermilab was beautiful, and it really made me realize how much I love physics,” Lopez said. “On the other end of the spectrum, it made me realize that I have to think of my future in a tangible way.”

Instead of being an astronaut, now she plans on building the next generation of particle detectors. Lopez is reaching that goal by coupling her love of physics with practical trade skills such as coding, which she picked up at Fermilab as part of her research developing new ways to visualize data for the MINERvA neutrino experiment.

“The main goal of it was to try to make the data that the MINERvA project was getting a lot easier to read and more presentable for a web-based format,” Lopez said. Interactive, user-friendly data may be one way to generate interest in particle physics from a more diverse audience. Lopez had no previous coding experience but quickly realized at Fermilab that it would allow her to make a bigger difference in the field.

Dominic, meanwhile, spent the summer with his grandparents in New Mexico. That was hard, Lopez said, but she received a lot of support from Internship Program Administrator Tanja Waltrip.

“I was determined to not let her miss this opportunity, which she worked so hard to acquire,” Waltrip said. Waltrip coordinates support services for interns like Lopez in 11 different programs hosted by Fermilab.

Less than 10 percent of applicants were accepted into Fermilab’s summer program. SULI is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, so many national labs host these internships, and applicants choose which labs to apply to.

“There was never a moment when anyone doubted or said I couldn’t do it,” Lopez said. Dominic doesn’t understand why his mom was gone this summer, but he made sure to give her the longest hug of her life when she came back. For her part, Lopez was happy to bring back a brighter future for her son.

Troy Rummler

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Neutrinos permeate Fermilab’s past, present and future

Monday, September 8th, 2014

This article appeared in Fermilab Today on Sept. 5, 2014.

This aerial view shows the Neutrino Area under construction in May 1971. The 15-foot bubble chamber, pictured on the left, would later be moved to the present-day location of Lab D.  Photo: Fermilab

This aerial view shows the Neutrino Area under construction in May 1971. The 15-foot bubble chamber, pictured on the left, would later be moved to the present-day location of Lab B. Photo: Fermilab

It was called Target Station C. One of three stations north of Wilson Hall at the end of beamlines extending from the Main Ring (later replaced by the Tevatron), Target Station C was assigned to experiments that would require high beam intensities for investigating neutrino interactions, according to a 1968 design report.

Within a few years, Target Station C was officially renamed the Neutrino Area. It was the first named fixed-target area and the first to be fully operational. Neutrinos and the Intensity Frontier had an early relationship with Fermilab. But why is it resurfacing now?

“The experimental program is driven by the current state of knowledge, and that’s always changing,” said Jeffrey Appel, a retired Fermilab physicist and assistant laboratory director who started research at the lab in 1972.

When Appel first arrived, there was intense interest in neutrinos because the weak force was poorly understood, and neutral currents were still a controversial idea. Fermilab joined forces with many institutions both in and outside the United States, and throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, neutrinos generated from protons in the Main Ring crashed through a 15-foot bubble chamber filled with super-heated liquid hydrogen. Other experiments running in parallel recorded neutrino interactions in iron and scintillator.

“The goal was to look for the W and Z produced in neutrino interactions,” said Appel. “So the priority for getting the beam up first and the priority for getting the detectors built and installed was on that program in those days.”

It turns out that the W and Z bosons are too massive to have been produced this way and had to wait to be discovered at colliding-beam experiments. As soon as the Tevatron was ready for colliding beams in 1985, the transition began at Fermilab from fixed-target areas to high-energy particle colliding.

More recent revelations have shown that neutrinos have mass. These findings have raised new questions that need answers. In 1988, plans were laid to add the Main Injector to the Fermilab campus, partly to boost the capabilities of the Tevatron, but also, according to one report, because “intense beams of neutral kaons and neutrinos would provide a unique facility for CP violation and neutrino oscillation experiments.”

Although neutrino research was a smaller fraction of the lab’s program during Tevatron operations, it was far from dormant. Two great accomplishments in neutrino research occurred in this time period: One was the most precise neutrino measurement of the strength of the weak interaction by the NuTeV experiment. The other was when the DONUT experiment achieved its goal of making the first direct observation of the tau neutrino in 2000.

“In the ’90s most evidence of neutrinos changing flavors was coming from natural sources. But this inspired a whole new generation of accelerator-based neutrino experiments,” said Deborah Harris, co-spokesperson for the MINERvA neutrino experiment. “That’s when Fermilab changed gears to make lower-energy but very intense neutrino beams that were uniquely suited for oscillation physics.”

In partnership with institutions around the globe, Fermilab began planning and building a suite of neutrino experiments. MiniBooNE and MINOS started running in the early 2000s and MINERvA started in 2010. MicroBooNE and NOvA are starting their runs this year.

Now the lab is working with other institutions to establish a Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility at the laboratory and advance its short-baseline neutrino research program. As Fermilab strengthens its international partnerships in all its neutrino experiments, it is also working to position itself as the home of the world’s forefront neutrino research.

“The combination of the completion of the Tevatron program and the new questions about neutrinos means that it’s an opportune time to redefine the focus of Fermilab,” Appel explained.

“Everybody says: ‘It’s not like the old days,’ and it’s always true,” Appel said. “Experiments are bigger and more expensive, but people are just as excited about what they’re doing.”

He added, “It’s different now but just as exciting, if not more so.”

Troy Rummler

Special thanks go to Fermilab archivists Valerie Higgins and Adrienne Kolb for helping navigate Fermilab’s many resources on early neutrino research at the laboratory.

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Do we live in a 2-D hologram?

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

This Fermilab press release was published on Aug. 26, 2014.

A Fermilab scientist works on the laser beams at the heart of the Holometer experiment. The Holometer will use twin laser interferometers to test whether the universe is a 2-D hologram. Photo: Fermilab

A Fermilab scientist works on the laser beams at the heart of the Holometer experiment. The Holometer will use twin laser interferometers to test whether the universe is a 2-D hologram. Photo: Fermilab

A unique experiment at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory called the Holometer has started collecting data that will answer some mind-bending questions about our universe – including whether we live in a hologram.

Much like characters on a television show would not know that their seemingly 3-D world exists only on a 2-D screen, we could be clueless that our 3-D space is just an illusion. The information about everything in our universe could actually be encoded in tiny packets in two dimensions.

Get close enough to your TV screen and you’ll see pixels, small points of data that make a seamless image if you stand back. Scientists think that the universe’s information may be contained in the same way and that the natural “pixel size” of space is roughly 10 trillion trillion times smaller than an atom, a distance that physicists refer to as the Planck scale.

“We want to find out whether space-time is a quantum system just like matter is,” said Craig Hogan, director of Fermilab’s Center for Particle Astrophysics and the developer of the holographic noise theory. “If we see something, it will completely change ideas about space we’ve used for thousands of years.”

Quantum theory suggests that it is impossible to know both the exact location and the exact speed of subatomic particles. If space comes in 2-D bits with limited information about the precise location of objects, then space itself would fall under the same theory of uncertainty. The same way that matter continues to jiggle (as quantum waves) even when cooled to absolute zero, this digitized space should have built-in vibrations even in its lowest energy state.

Essentially, the experiment probes the limits of the universe’s ability to store information. If there is a set number of bits that tell you where something is, it eventually becomes impossible to find more specific information about the location – even in principle. The instrument testing these limits is Fermilab’s Holometer, or holographic interferometer, the most sensitive device ever created to measure the quantum jitter of space itself.

Now operating at full power, the Holometer uses a pair of interferometers placed close to one another. Each one sends a one-kilowatt laser beam (the equivalent of 200,000 laser pointers) at a beam splitter and down two perpendicular 40-meter arms. The light is then reflected back to the beam splitter where the two beams recombine, creating fluctuations in brightness if there is motion. Researchers analyze these fluctuations in the returning light to see if the beam splitter is moving in a certain way – being carried along on a jitter of space itself.

“Holographic noise” is expected to be present at all frequencies, but the scientists’ challenge is not to be fooled by other sources of vibrations. The Holometer is testing a frequency so high – millions of cycles per second – that motions of normal matter are not likely to cause problems. Rather, the dominant background noise is more often due to radio waves emitted by nearby electronics. The Holometer experiment is designed to identify and eliminate noise from such conventional sources.

“If we find a noise we can’t get rid of, we might be detecting something fundamental about nature – a noise that is intrinsic to space-time,” said Fermilab physicist Aaron Chou, lead scientist and project manager for the Holometer. “It’s an exciting moment for physics. A positive result will open a whole new avenue of questioning about how space works.”

The Holometer experiment, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science and other sources, is expected to gather data over the coming year.

The Holometer team comprises 21 scientists and students from Fermilab, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan. For more information about the experiment, visit http://holometer.fnal.gov/.

Fermilab is America’s premier national laboratory for particle physics and accelerator research. A U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science laboratory, Fermilab is located near Chicago, Illinois, and operated under contract by the Fermi Research Alliance, LLC. Visit Fermilab’s website at www.fnal.gov and follow us on Twitter at @FermilabToday.

The DOE Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.

.

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Dark Energy Survey kicks off second season cataloging the wonders of deep space

Monday, August 18th, 2014

This Fermilab press release came out on Aug. 18, 2014.

This image of the NGC 1398 galaxy was taken with the Dark Energy Camera. This galaxy lives in the Fornax cluster, roughly 65 million light-years from Earth. It is 135,000 light-years in diameter, just slightly larger than our own Milky Way galaxy, and contains more than 100 billion stars. Credit: Dark Energy Survey

This image of the NGC 1398 galaxy was taken with the Dark Energy Camera. This galaxy lives in the Fornax cluster, roughly 65 million light-years from Earth. It is 135,000 light-years in diameter, just slightly larger than our own Milky Way galaxy, and contains more than 100 billion stars. Credit: Dark Energy Survey

On Aug. 15, with its successful first season behind it, the Dark Energy Survey (DES) collaboration began its second year of mapping the southern sky in unprecedented detail. Using the Dark Energy Camera, a 570-megapixel imaging device built by the collaboration and mounted on the Victor M. Blanco Telescope in Chile, the survey’s five-year mission is to unravel the fundamental mystery of dark energy and its impact on our universe.

Along the way, the survey will take some of the most breathtaking pictures of the cosmos ever captured. The survey team has announced two ways the public can see the images from the first year.

Today, the Dark Energy Survey relaunched Dark Energy Detectives, its successful photo blog. Once every two weeks during the survey’s second season, a new image or video will be posted to www.darkenergydetectives.org, with an explanation provided by a scientist. During its first year, Dark Energy Detectives drew thousands of readers and followers, including more than 46,000 followers on its Tumblr site.

Starting on Sept. 1, the one-year anniversary of the start of the survey, the data collected by DES in its first season will become freely available to researchers worldwide. The data will be hosted by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory. The Blanco Telescope is hosted at the National Science Foundation’s Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, the southern branch of NOAO.

In addition, the hundreds of thousands of individual images of the sky taken during the first season are being analyzed by thousands of computers at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab), and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The processed data will also be released in coming months.

Scientists on the survey will use these images to unravel the secrets of dark energy, the mysterious substance that makes up 70 percent of the mass and energy of the universe. Scientists have theorized that dark energy works in opposition to gravity and is responsible for the accelerating expansion of the universe.

“The first season was a resounding success, and we’ve already captured reams of data that will improve our understanding of the cosmos,” said DES Director Josh Frieman of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the University of Chicago. “We’re very excited to get the second season under way and continue to probe the mystery of dark energy.”

While results on the survey’s probe of dark energy are still more than a year away, a number of scientific results have already been published based on data collected with the Dark Energy Camera.

The first scientific paper based on Dark Energy Survey data was published in May by a team led by Ohio State University’s Peter Melchior. Using data that the survey team acquired while putting the Dark Energy Camera through its paces, they used a technique called gravitational lensing to determine the masses of clusters of galaxies.

In June, Dark Energy Survey researchers from the University of Portsmouth and their colleagues discovered a rare superluminous supernova in a galaxy 7.8 billion light years away. A group of students from the University of Michigan discovered five new objects in the Kuiper Belt, a region in the outer reaches of our solar system, including one that takes over a thousand years to orbit the Sun.

In February, Dark Energy Survey scientists used the camera to track a potentially hazardous asteroid that approached Earth. The data was used to show that the newly discovered Apollo-class asteroid 2014 BE63 would pose no risk.

Several more results are expected in the coming months, said Gary Bernstein of the University of Pennsylvania, project scientist for the Dark Energy Survey.

The Dark Energy Camera was built and tested at Fermilab. The camera can see light from more than 100,000 galaxies up to 8 billion light-years away in each crystal-clear digital snapshot.

“The Dark Energy Camera has proven to be a tremendous tool, not only for the Dark Energy Survey, but also for other important observations conducted year-round,” said Tom Diehl of Fermilab, operations scientist for the Dark Energy Survey. “The data collected during the survey’s first year — and its next four — will greatly improve our understanding of the way our universe works.”

The Dark Energy Survey Collaboration comprises more than 300 researchers from 25 institutions in six countries. For more information, visit http://www.darkenergysurvey.org.

Fermilab is America’s premier national laboratory for particle physics and accelerator research. A U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science laboratory, Fermilab is located near Chicago, Illinois, and operated under contract by the Fermi Research Alliance, LLC. Visit Fermilab’s website at www.fnal.gov and follow us on Twitter at @FermilabToday.

The DOE Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.

The National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), Inc., under cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation.

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Latest video in Huffington Post’s Talk Nerdy to Me video series

Monday, August 11th, 2014

Watch Fermilab Deputy Director Joe Lykken in the latest entry in Huffington Post's "Talk Nerdy To Me" video series.

Watch Fermilab Deputy Director Joe Lykken in the latest entry in Huffington Post’s “Talk Nerdy To Me” video series.


What’s the smallest thing in the universe? Check out the latest entry in Huffington Post‘s Talk Nerdy to Me video series. Host Jacqueline Howard takes the viewer inside Fermilab and explains how scientists look for the smallest components that make up our world. Fermilab Deputy Director Joe Lykken talks about the new discoveries we hope to make in exploring the the subatomic realm.

View the 3-minute video at Huffington Post.

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Hidden gender bias still influences physics field

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

This article appeared in Fermilab Today on Aug. 6, 2014.

Yale University astrophysicist Meg Urry spoke about gender bias in science at the July 30 Fermilab Colloquium. Photo: Lauren Biron

Yale University astrophysicist Meg Urry spoke about gender bias in science at the July 30 Fermilab Colloquium. Photo: Lauren Biron

Both men and women need to improve how they evaluate women in the sciences to help eliminate bias, says Meg Urry, who spoke at last week’s Fermilab Colloquium. People of either gender fall victim to unconscious prejudices that affect who succeeds, particularly in physics.

“Less than 20 percent of the Ph.D.s in physics go to women,” Urry noted, a figure that has barely crept up even while fields such as medicine have approached parity.

Urry, a professor at Yale University and president of the American Astronomical Society, unleashed a torrent of studies demonstrating bias during her talk, “Women in Physics: Why So Few? And How to Move Toward Normal.”

In one example, letters of recommendation for men were more likely to include powerful adjectives and contain specifics, while those for women were often shorter, included hints of doubt or made explicit mention of gender.

Another study found that in jobs that were perceived as masculine, both men and women tended to award the position to the man even when the woman was the qualified individual.

Other data showed that women are less likely to be perceived as the leader in mixed-gender scenarios, Urry said. When small numbers of women are present, they can become an “other” that stands in for the whole gender, magnifying perceived mistakes and potentially confirming a bias that women are less proficient in physics.

“You need a large enough group that people stop thinking of them as the woman and start thinking of them as the scientist,” Urry said.

Urry advised the many young women in the audience to own their ambition, prep their elevator speeches, get male allies who will stand up if female voices are ignored, practice confidence and network. Above all, she said, work hard, do interesting work, and don’t be discouraged if things get rough.

Meanwhile, Urry said, leaders need to learn about bias, actively look for diverse candidates rather than wait for applications, mentor and prevalidate women, such as when introducing a speaker.

Urry worked hard to debunk the myth that hiring more women means lowering the bar for diversity’s sake.

“When you hire a diverse group of scientists, you are improving your quality, not lowering your standards,” Urry said, echoing sentiments from her lunchtime talk with 40 women. “We should be aspiring to diversity of thought to enrich science.”

Lauren Biron

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Accelerator physicist invents new way to clean up oil spills

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

This article appeared in Fermilab Today on July 30, 2014.

Fermilab physicist Arden Warner revolutionizes oil spill cleanup with magnetizable oil invention. Photo: Hanae Armitage

Fermilab physicist Arden Warner revolutionizes oil spill cleanup with magnetizable oil invention. Photo: Hanae Armitage

Four years ago, Fermilab accelerator physicist Arden Warner watched national news of the BP oil spill and found himself frustrated with the cleanup response.

“My wife asked ‘Can you separate oil from water?’ and I said ‘Maybe I could magnetize it!'” Warner recalled. “But that was just something I said. Later that night while I was falling asleep, I thought, you know what, that’s not a bad idea.”

Sleep forgone, Warner began experimenting in his garage. With shavings from his shovel, a splash of engine oil and a refrigerator magnet, Warner witnessed the preliminary success of a concept that could revolutionize the process of oil spill damage control.

Warner has received patent approval on the cleanup method.

The concept is simple: Take iron particles or magnetite dust and add them to oil. It turns out that these particles mix well with oil and form a loose colloidal suspension that floats in water. Mixed with the filings, the suspension is susceptible to magnetic forces. At a barely discernible 2 to 6 microns in size, the particles tend to clump together, and it only takes a sparse dusting for them to bond with the oil. When a magnetic field is applied to the oil and filings, they congeal into a viscous liquid known as a magnetorheological fluid. The fluid’s viscosity allows a magnetic field to pool both filings and oil to a single location, making them easy to remove. (View a 30-second video of the reaction.)

“It doesn’t take long — you add the filings, you pull them out. The entire process is even more efficient with hydrophobic filings. As soon as they hit the oil, they sink in,” said Warner, who works in the Accelerator Division. Hydrophobic filings are those that don’t like to interact with water — think of hydrophobic as water-fearing. “You could essentially have a device that disperses filings and a magnetic conveyor system behind it that picks it up. You don’t need a lot of material.”

Warner tested more than 100 oils, including sweet crude and heavy crude. As it turns out, the crude oils’ natural viscosity makes it fairly easy to magnetize and clear away. Currently, booms, floating devices that corral oil spills, are at best capable of containing the spill; oil removal is an entirely different process. But the iron filings can work in conjunction with an electromagnetic boom to allow tighter constriction and removal of the oil. Using solenoids, metal coils that carry an electrical current, the electromagnetic booms can steer the oil-filing mixture into collector tanks.

Unlike other oil cleanup methods, the magnetized oil technique is far more environmentally sound. There are no harmful chemicals introduced into the ocean — magnetite is a naturally occurring mineral. The filings are added and, briefly after, extracted. While there are some straggling iron particles, the vast majority is removed in one fell, magnetized swoop — the filings can even be dried and reused.

“This technique is more environmentally benign because it’s natural; we’re not adding soaps and chemicals to the ocean,” said Cherri Schmidt, head of Fermilab’s Office of Partnerships and Technology Transfer. “Other ‘cleanup’ techniques disperse the oil and make the droplets smaller or make the oil sink to the bottom. This doesn’t do that.”

Warner’s ideas for potential applications also include wildlife cleanup and the use of chemical sensors. Small devices that “smell” high and low concentrations of oil could be fastened to a motorized electromagnetic boom to direct it to the most oil-contaminated areas.

“I get crazy ideas all the time, but every so often one sticks,” Warner said. “This is one that I think could stick for the benefit of the environment and Fermilab.”

Hanae Armitage

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Fermilab technology available for license: Bed-ridden boredom spurs new invention

Thursday, July 24th, 2014

This article appeared in Fermilab Today on July 24, 2014.

Fermilab engineer Jim Hoff has invented an electronic circuit that can guard against radiation damage. Photo: Hanae Armitage

Fermilab engineer Jim Hoff has invented an electronic circuit that can guard against radiation damage. Photo: Hanae Armitage

Fermilab engineer Jim Hoff has received patent approval on a very tiny, very clever invention that could have an impact on aerospace, agriculture and medical imaging industries.

Hoff has engineered a widely adaptable latch — an electronic circuit capable of remembering a logical state — that suppresses a commonly destructive circuit error caused by radiation.

There are two radiation-based errors that can damage a circuit: total dose and single-event upset. In the former, the entire circuit is doused in radiation and damaged; in an SEU, a single particle of radiation delivers its energy to the chip and alters a state of memory, which takes the form of 1s and 0s. Altered states of memory equate to an unintentional shift from logical 1 or logical 0 and ultimately lead to loss of data or imaging resolution. Hoff’s design is essentially a chip immunization, preemptively guarding against SEUs.

“There are a lot of applications,” Hoff said. “Anyone who needs to store data for a length of time and keep it in that same state, uncorrupted — anyone flying in a high-altitude plane, anyone using medical imaging technology — could use this.”

Past experimental data showed that, in any given total-ionizing radiation dose, the latch reduces single-event upsets by a factor of about 40. Hoff suspects that the invention’s newer configurations will yield at least two orders of magnitude in single-event upset reduction.

The invention is fondly referred to as SEUSS, which stands for single-event upset suppression system. It’s relatively inexpensive and designed to integrate easily with a multitude of circuits — all that’s needed is a compatible transistor.

Hoff’s line of work lies in chip development, and SEUSS is currently used in some Fermilab-developed chips such as FSSR, which is used in projects at Jefferson Lab, and Phoenix, which is used in the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

The idea of SEUSS was born out of post-knee-surgery, bed-ridden boredom. On strict bed rest, Hoff’s mind naturally wandered to engineering.

“As I was lying there, leg in pain, back cramping, I started playing with designs of my most recent project at work,” he said. “At one point I stopped and thought, ‘Wow, I just made a single-event upset-tolerant SR flip-flop!'”

While this isn’t the world’s first SEUSS-tolerant latch, Hoff is the first to create a single-event upset suppression system that is also a set-reset flip-flop, meaning it can take the form of almost any latch. As a flip-flop, the adaptability of the latch is enormous and far exceeds that of its pre-existing latch brethren.

“That’s what makes this a truly special latch — its incredible versatility,” says Hoff.

From a broader vantage point, the invention is exciting for more than just Fermilab employees; it’s one of Fermilab’s first big efforts in pursuing potential licensees from industry.

Cherri Schmidt, head of Fermilab’s Office of Partnerships and Technology Transfer, with the assistance of intern Miguel Marchan, has been developing the marketing plan to reach out to companies who may be interested in licensing the technology for commercial application.

“We’re excited about this one because it could really affect a large number of industries and companies,” Schmidt said. “That, to me, is what makes this invention so interesting and exciting.”

Hanae Armitage

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