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How to build your own particle detector

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

This article ran in symmetry on Jan. 20, 2015

Make a cloud chamber and watch fundamental particles zip through your living room! Image: Sandbox Studio, Chicago

Make a cloud chamber and watch fundamental particles zip through your living room! Image: Sandbox Studio, Chicago

The scale of the detectors at the Large Hadron Collider is almost incomprehensible: They weigh thousands of tons, contain millions of detecting elements and support a research program for an international community of thousands of scientists.

But particle detectors aren’t always so complicated. In fact, some particle detectors are so simple that you can make (and operate) them in your own home.

The Continuously Sensitive Diffusion Cloud Chamber is one such detector. Originally developed at UC Berkeley in 1938, this type of detector uses evaporated alcohol to make a ‘cloud’ that is extremely sensitive to passing particles.

Cosmic rays are particles that are constantly crashing into the Earth from space. When they hit Earth’s atmosphere, they release a shower of less massive particles, many of which invisibly rain down to us.

When a cosmic ray zips through a cloud, it creates ghostly particle tracks that are visible to the naked eye.

Building a cloud chamber is easy and requires only a few simple materials and steps:

Materials:

  • Clear plastic or glass tub (such as a fish tank) with a solid lid (plastic or metal)
  • Felt
  • Isopropyl alcohol (90% or more. You can find this at a pharmacy or special order from a chemical supply company. Wear safety goggles when handling the alcohol.)
  • Dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide. Often used at fish markets and grocery stores to keep products cool. Wear thick gloves when handling the dry ice.)

Steps:

  1. Cut the felt so that it is the size of the bottom of the fish tank. Glue it down inside the tank (on the bottom where the sand and fake treasure chests would normally go).
  2. Once the felt is secured, soak it in the isopropyl alcohol until it is saturated. Drain off any excess alcohol.
  3. Place the lid on top of dry ice so that it lies flat. You might want to have the dry ice in a container or box so that it is more stable.
  4. Flip the tank upside down, so that the felt-covered bottom of the tank is on top, and place the mouth of the tank on top of the lid.
  5. Wait about 10 minutes… then turn off the lights and shine a flashlight into your tank.
Artwork by: Sandbox Studio, Chicago

What is happening inside your cloud chamber?

The alcohol absorbed by the felt is at room temperature and is slowly evaporating into the air. But as the evaporated alcohol sinks toward the dry ice, it cools down and wants to turn back into a liquid.

The air near the bottom of the tank is now supersaturated, which means that it is just below its atmospheric dew point. And just as water molecules cling to blades of grass on cool autumn mornings, the atmospheric alcohol will form cloud-like droplets on anything it can cling to.

Particles, coming through!

When a particle zips through your cloud chamber, it bumps into atmospheric molecules and knocks off some of their electrons, turning the molecules into charged ions. The atmospheric alcohol is attracted to these ions and clings to them, forming tiny droplets.

The resulting tracks left behind look like the contrails of airplane—long spindly lines marking the particle’s path through your cloud chamber.

What you can tell from your tracks?

Many different types of particles might pass through your cloud chamber. It might be hard to see, but you can actually differentiate between the types of particles based on the tracks they leave behind.

Short, fat tracks

Sorry—not a cosmic ray. When you see short, fat tracks, you’re seeing an atmospheric radon atom spitting out an alpha particle (a clump of two protons and two neutrons). Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive element, but it exists in such low concentrations in the air that it is less radioactive than peanut butter. Alpha particles spat out of radon atoms are bulky and low-energy, so they leave short, fat tracks.

Long, straight track

Congratulations! You’ve got muons! Muons are the heavier cousins of the electron and are produced when a cosmic ray bumps into an atmospheric molecule high up in the atmosphere. Because they are so massive, muons bludgeon their way through the air and leave clean, straight tracks.

Zig-zags and curly-cues

If your track looks like the path of a lost tourist in a foreign city, you’re looking at an electron or positron (the electron’s anti-matter twin). Electrons and positrons are created when a cosmic ray crashes into atmospheric molecules. Electrons and positrons are light particles and bounce around when they hit air molecules, leaving zig-zags and curly-cues.

Forked tracks

If your track splits, congratulations! You just saw a particle decay. Many particles are unstable and will decay into more stable particles. If your track suddenly forks, you are seeing physics in action!

 

 

Sarah Charley

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Deck the halls with Nobel physicists

Friday, December 19th, 2014

This article appeared in symmetry on Dec. 16, 2014.

Symmetry presents a physics twist on the craft of cutting paper snowflakes. Image: Sandbox Studio, Chicago

Symmetry presents a physics twist on the craft of cutting paper snowflakes. Image: Sandbox Studio, Chicago

If you’re looking for a way to decorate for the holidays while also proudly declaring your love of science, symmetry has got your back. Below you’ll find templates for paper snowflakes with winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics incorporated into the designs.

With the help of a printer, paper, an X-acto knife (preferably with some sharp replacement blades at the ready) and a cutting board or mat, you can transform your home into a flurry of famous physicists.

Simply download the snowflake templates, print them out, follow the folding instructions, and cut out the gray areas, making sure to cut through every layer of paper (but not your fingers!). Then unfold the paper and revel in your creation.

Practice makes perfect, but remember, no two snowflakes are supposed to be alike anyway.

Albert Einstein

Energy and mass may be equivalent, but this Albert Einstein snowflake is beyond compare.

SnowflakeEinstein2

Download PDF template.

 

Marie Curie

Double Nobel Laureate Marie Curie radiates charm in this snowflake design.

Download PDF template.

 

Erwin Schrödinger

Is it an Erwin Schrödinger snowflake with cats on it, or is it a cat snowflake with Erwin Schrödingers on it? You won’t know until you make it.

Download PDF template.

For advanced snowflake-making techniques, see our instructional video.

Kathryn Jepsen

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New books for the physics fan

Saturday, December 13th, 2014

This article appeared in symmetry on Dec. 9, 2014.

These recently published popular science books will help you catch up on particle physics news, knowledge and history. Image: Artwork Sandbox Studio, Chicago, with Ana Kova

These recently published popular science books will help you catch up on particle physics news, knowledge and history. Image: Artwork Sandbox Studio, Chicago, with Ana Kova

Looking to stay current on your particle physics knowledge? Here are 10 recent popular science books you might want to check out.

 

1. Faraday, Maxwell and the Electromagnetic Field: How Two Men Revolutionized Physics

Nancy Forbes, Basil Mahon

Classical unified field theory came from the realization that electricity, magnetism and light all can be explained with a single electromagnetic field.

There is no modern physics without classical unified field theory—heck, there are no electronics without classical unified field theory—and there is no classical unified field theory without Michael Faraday (1791-1867) and James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879).

The unlikely partners, born four decades apart, shared the achievement of upending a view of the world that had prevailed since Isaac Newton.

“The extraordinary idea put forward by Faraday and Maxwell was that space itself acted as a repository of energy and a transmitter of forces,” write Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon in Faraday, Maxwell and the Electromagnetic Field: How Two Men Revolutionized Physics.

Faraday was largely self-taught and made important realizations without the benefit of a formal education in mathematics, while Maxwell was regarded as among the most brilliant mathematical physicists of his time. This double biography examines their differing lives and explains how their combined work paved the way for modern physics.

 

2. The Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter

Katherine Freese

In The Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter, physicist Katherine Freese explores the critical place dark matter occupies in our understanding of the cosmos.

It has yet to be observed directly. But, she tells us, dark matter’s day of reckoning might not be far off.

“Some new particles, unlike any from our daily experience, might be tearing through the galaxy,” she writes. “Scientists have already found hints of detection in their experiments… The nature of dark matter is one of the greatest puzzles of modern science, and it is a puzzle we are on the verge of solving.”

Freese, now the new director of the Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics in Stockholm, admits to spending a disproportionate amount of time on the dance floor of nearby Studio 54 when she should have been focused on her doctoral studies at Columbia University. But she also tells a compelling history of the search for dark matter, from the cantankerous Fritz Zwicky’s early predictions in the 1930s to hopes for an appearance when the Large Hadron Collider fires up again in 2015.

 

3. The Large Hadron Collider: The Extraordinary Story of the Higgs Boson and Other Stuff that will Blow Your Mind

Don Lincoln

“My goal was to give readers an inside account of the hunt and discovery,” says Fermilab scientist Don Lincoln, a member of CERN’s CMS experiment, of his latest book, The Large Hadron Collider: The Extraordinary Story of the Higgs Boson and Other Stuff that will Blow Your Mind. “Almost all of the similar books have been written by non-physicists and theorists. I went to all the meetings, so I have a unique perspective.”

In the book, Lincoln describes the process of the discovery of the Higgs boson—and explains that it is not the end of the story.

Even though the widely celebrated appearance of the Higgs particle confirmed theorists’ predictions, Lincoln maintains that the relatively light mass of the Higgs raises enough questions to keep physicists awake at night.

“The measurement is quite inconsistent with the Standard Model and the quantum corrections,” he says. “This absolutely screams that there is something still to be found and this could be supersymmetry, extra dimensions, composite Higgs bosons or some other kind of new physics. In short, we know there is something big we’re missing.”

 

4. The Most Wanted Particle: The Inside Story of the Hunt for the Higgs, the Heart of the Future of Physics

Jon Butterworth

“I wanted it to give readers a sense of what it really feels like to work in a big experiment at such an amazing time and what it meant,” says University College London physicist Jon Butterworth of his book The Most Wanted Particle: The Inside Story of the Hunt for the Higgs, the Heart of the Future of Physics. “This meant occasionally the physics had to go a bit deeper than the common analogies, but also there is a lot of non-physics story which hopefully captures the real-time excitement.”

Butterworth, who works on the ATLAS experiment at CERN, uses a personalized approach to convey a sense of scene. In one chapter, he describes explaining the Higgs discovery to British TV reporter Tom Clarke while the two shoot pool.

He also uses his current hometown in England to describe his workplace at CERN, comparing the size of the Large Hadron Collider tunnel to the size of the London Underground.

The book, released in the UK in May under the title Smashing Physics: Inside the World’s Biggest Experiment, will be released in the US in January 2015.

 

5. The Perfect Wave: With Neutrinos at the Boundary of Space and Time

Heinrich Pas

Heinrich Pas, a theorist at the Technical University of Dortmund in Germany, studies neutrinos, particles that seem to defy the rules but may hold answers to the deepest questions of the universe.

In The Perfect Wave: With Neutrinos at the Boundary of Space and Time, Pas explains how powerful processes in the cosmos—from the fusion that lights the sun to the magnificent explosions of supernovae—are bound up in the workings of the mysterious particles.

“It is a story of an elementary particle that, just like the Silver Surfer in the superhero cartoons, surfs to the boundaries of knowledge, of the universe and of time itself,” Pas writes. “A story that captivates you as it sucks you into a maelstrom like an oversized wonderland. Jump on your board and hold tight.”

 

6. The Science of Interstellar

Kip Thorne

Kip S. Thorne, the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics Emeritus at Caltech, served as the executive producer for scientific credibility (and flexibility) on the space epic Interstellar. He explains that work in the book The Science of Interstellar.

In the film, astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) takes leaps and bounds over, under, around and through black holes and wormholes on his quest to find a refugee planet for the population of Earth, whose food supply is devastated by global blight.

Thorne writes that “[s]ome of the science is known to be true, some of it is an educated guess, and some is speculation.”

But he takes all of it seriously; Thorne and his colleagues even wrote a scientific paper based on their computer simulations of the movie’s black hole.

 

7. The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time

Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Lee Smolin

Physicist Lee Smolin of Canada’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, author of the controversial book The Trouble With Physics, collaborated with philosopher and politician Roberto Mangabeira Unger on the new book The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time.

In it, Smolin and Unger argue against the idea of the multiverse and declare that it is time to view the cosmos as being governed by laws that are evolving rather than laws that are immutable. They contend that, “everything changes sooner or later, including change itself. The laws of nature are not exempt from this impermanence.”

 

8. Time in Powers of Ten: Natural Phenomena and their Timescales

Gerard ‘t Hooft, Stefan Vandoren

In Time in Powers of Ten: Natural Phenomena and their Timescales, Nobel Laureate Gerard ‘t Hooft and theorist Stefan Vandoren, both of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, step back and forth in time from the minutest fractions of a second to the age of the universe and beyond. Observations range from the orbits and rotations of planets and stars, down to the decay times of atoms and elementary particles and back to geological time scales.

“The smallest matter mankind has studied moves considerably faster than the quickest computing processes of the most expeditious machine; while on the other side of the timescale we see planets, stars and entire galaxies of unimaginably old age, some billions of years,” ‘t Hooft and Vandoren write. “Scientists believe they know almost exactly how old the universe is, but even its seemingly eternal lifetime does not constitute a limit for physicists’ research.”

 

9. Travelling to Infinity: The True Story Behind the Theory of Everything

Jane Hawking

In Travelling to Infinity: The True Story Behind the Theory of Everything, readers are introduced to a young, floppy-haired Stephen Hawking through the eyes of his first wife, Jane Hawking (née Wilde). Hawking published versions of this book in both 1999 and 2007, and the book was reissued this year to accompany the film adaptation, The Theory of Everything.

In the book, Jane describes an early impression of Stephen from a New Year’s party in 1963: “Clearly here was someone, like me, who tended to stumble through life and managed to see the funny side of situations. Someone who, like me, was fairly shy, yet not averse to sharing his opinions, someone who unlike me had developed a sense of his own worth and had the effrontery to convey it.”

Here is a love story in which love is not enough. Hawking leaves and marries one of the nurses who tended him. Jane marries an old family friend. The two have reconciled and are on amicable terms—a good thing when the person writing your life story is your former spouse.

 

10. What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

Randall Munroe

Randall Munroe’s stick-figure web comic strip, xkcd, comes with a warning: “This comic occasionally contains strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), unusual humor (which may be unsuitable for adults), and advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors).”

There are no dumb questions, only humorous and provocative answers from Munroe, a former NASA roboticist, in his book What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. For example:

“Q – What would happen if the Earth and all terrestrial objects stopped spinning, but the atmosphere retained its velocity?

“A – Nearly everyone would die. THEN things would get interesting…”

In “What If?” what seems like the end is often just the beginning.

Mike Perricone

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How to make a neutrino beam

Friday, December 12th, 2014

This article appeared in Fermilab Today on Dec. 11, 2014.

Ingredients for a neutrino beam: speedy protons, target, magnetic horn, decay pipe, absorbers. Image adapted from Fermilab

Ingredients for a neutrino beam: speedy protons, target, magnetic horn, decay pipe, absorbers. Image adapted from Fermilab

Fermilab is in the middle of expanding its neutrino program and is developing new detectors to study these ghostly particles. With its exquisite particle accelerator complex, Fermilab is capable of creating very intense beams of neutrinos.

Our neutrino recipe starts with a tank of hydrogen. The hydrogen atoms are fed an extra electron to make them negatively charged, allowing them to be accelerated. Once the charged atoms are accelerated, all of the electrons are ripped off, leaving a beam of positive protons. The protons are extracted into either the Booster Neutrino Beamline (BNB) or are further accelerated and extracted into the Neutrino Main Injector beamline (NuMI). Fermilab is the only laboratory with two neutrino beams. Our two beams have different energies, which allows us to study different properties of the neutrinos.

In the BNB, these protons smash into a target to break up the strong bonds of the quarks inside the proton. These collisions are so violent that they produce new quarks from their excess energy. These quarks immediately form together again into lighter composite short-lived particles called pions and kaons.

Since the pions and kaons emerge at different directions and speeds, they need to be herded together. As a bugle tunes your breath into musical notes, a horn of a different type rounds up and focuses the pions and kaons. The BNB horn looks roughly like the bell of a six-foot long bugle. It produces an electric field that in turn generates a funnel-like magnetic field, which directs all of the dispersed pions and kaons of positive electric charge straight ahead. Particles with negative charges get defocused. By switching the direction of the electric field, we can focus the negatively charged particles while defocusing the positive charges.

The focused particles in the BNB beam travel through a 50-meter long tunnel. This is where the magic happens. In this empty tunnel, the pions and kaons decay in flight into neutrinos, electrons and muons. At the end of the decay tunnel is a wall of steel and concrete to stop and absorb any particle that is not a neutrino. Because neutrinos interact so rarely, they easily whiz through the absorbers and on towards the experiments. And that’s the basic formula to make a beam of neutrinos!

A single neutrino beamline can support many experiments because the neutrinos interact too rarely to get “used up.” The BNB feeds neutrinos to MicroBooNE, and most of them go on through to the other side towards the MiniBooNE detector. Similarly, most of those go on through the other side as well and continue traveling to infinity and beyond. Detectors located in this beam measure neutrino oscillations and their interactions.

The NuMI beamline is designed similarly, but uses a different target material, two focusing horns, and a 675-meter decay pipe. The spacing between the two NuMI horns is adjustable, allowing fine-tuning of the neutrino beam energy. The NuMI beamline has higher-energy neutrinos than the BNB and thus studies different properties of neutrino oscillations.

The NuMI beamline feeds neutrinos to the MINERvA experiment and on through to the MINOS near detector. The NuMI beamline then continues about 450 miles through Earth on toward the MINOS far detector in the Soudan mine in Minnesota. By the time the beam reaches the far detector, it is about 20 miles in diameter! By having a near and far detector, we are able to observe neutrino flavor oscillations by measuring how much of the beam is electron neutrino flavor and muon neutrino flavor at each of these two detectors.

The last of the big Fermilab neutrino experiments is NOvA. Its near detector is off to the side of the NuMI beam and measures neutrinos only with a specific range of direction and energy. The NOvA far detector is positioned to measure the neutrinos with the same properties at a greater distance, about 500 miles away in Ash River, Minnesota. By placing the NOvA detectors 3 degrees to the side of the beam’s center, NOvA will get to make more precise oscillation measurements for a range of neutrino energies.

As more experiments are designed with more demanding requirements, Fermilab may expect to see more neutrino beamline R&D and the construction of new beamlines.

Tia Miceli

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Scintillator extruded at Fermilab detects particles around the globe

Wednesday, November 26th, 2014

This article appeared in Fermilab Today on Nov. 26, 2014

The plastic scintillator extrusion line, shown here, produces detector material for export to experiments around the world. Photo: Reidar Hahn

The plastic scintillator extrusion line, shown here, produces detector material for export to experiments around the world. Photo: Reidar Hahn

Small, clear pellets of polystyrene can do a lot. They can help measure cosmic muons at the Pierre Auger Observatory, search for CP violation at KEK in Japan or observe neutrino oscillation at Fermilab. But in order to do any of these they have to go through Lab 5, located in the Fermilab Village, where the Scintillation Detector Development Group, in collaboration with the Northern Illinois Center for Accelerator and Detector Design (NICADD), manufactures the exclusive source of extruded plastic scintillator.

Like vinyl siding on a house, long thin blocks of plastic scintillator cover the surfaces of certain particle detectors. The plastic absorbs energy from collisions and releases it as measurable flashes of light. Fermilab’s Alan Bross and Anna Pla-Dalmau first partnered with local vendors to develop the concept and produce cost-effective scintillator material for the MINOS neutrino oscillation experiment. Later, with NIU’s Gerald Blazey, they built the in-house facility that has now exported high-quality extruded scintillator to experiments worldwide.

“It was clear that extruded scintillator would have a big impact on large neutrino detectors,” Bross said, “but its widespread application was not foreseen.”

Industrially manufactured polystyrene scintillators can be costly — requiring a labor-intensive process of casting purified materials individually in molds that have to be cleaned constantly. Producing the number of pieces needed for large-scale projects such as MINOS through casting would have been prohibitively expensive.

Extrusion, in contrast, presses melted plastic pellets through a die to create a continuous noodle of scintillator (typically about four centimeters wide by two centimeters tall) at a much lower cost. The first step in the production line mixes into the melted plastic two additives that enhance polystyrene’s natural scintillating property. As the material reaches the die, it receives a white, highly reflective coating that holds in scintillation light. Two cold water tanks respectively bathe and shower the scintillator strip before it is cool enough to handle. A puller controls its speed, and a robotic saw finally cuts it to length. The final product contains either a groove or a hole meant for a wavelength-shifting fiber that captures the scintillation light and sends the signal to electronics in the most useful form possible.

Bross had been working on various aspects of the scintillator cost problem since 1989, and he and Pla-Dalmau successfully extruded experiment-quality plastic scintillator with their vendors just in time to make MINOS a reality. In 2003, NICADD purchased and located at Lab 5 many of the machines needed to form an in-house production line.

“The investment made by Blazey and NICADD opened extruded scintillators to numerous experiments,” Pla-Dalmau said. “Without this contribution from NIU, who knows if this equipment would have ever been available to Fermilab and the rest of the physics community?”

Blazey agreed that collaboration was an important part of the plastic scintillator development.

“Together the two institutions had the capacity to build the resources necessary to develop state-of-the-art scintillator detector elements for numerous experiments inside and outside high-energy physics,” Blazey said. “The two institutions remain strong collaborators.”

Between their other responsibilities at Fermilab, the SDD group continues to study ways to make their scintillator more efficient. One task ahead, according to Bross, is to work modern, glass wavelength-shifting fibers into their final product.

“Incorporation of the fibers into the extrusions has always been a tedious part of the process,” he said. “We would like to change that.”

Troy Rummler

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Neutrinos, claymation and ‘Doctor Who’ at this year’s physics slam

Monday, November 24th, 2014

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

Wes Ketchum of the MicroBooNE collaboration is the Physics Slam III champion. Ketchum's slam was on the detection of particles using liquid argon. Photo: Cindy Arnold

Wes Ketchum of the MicroBooNE collaboration is the Physics Slam III champion. Ketchum’s slam was on the detection of particles using liquid argon. Photo: Cindy Arnold

On Nov. 21, for the third year in a row, the Fermilab Lecture Series invited five scientists to battle it out in an event called a physics slam. And for the third year in a row, the slam proved wildly popular, selling out Ramsey Auditorium more than a month in advance.

More than 800 people braved the cold to watch this year’s contest, in which the participants took on large and intricate concepts such as dark energy, exploding supernovae, neutrino detection and the overwhelming tide of big data. Each scientist was given 10 minutes to discuss a chosen topic in the most engaging and entertaining way possible, with the winner decided by audience applause.

Michael Hildreth of the University of Notre Dame kicked things off by humorously illustrating the importance of preserving data — not just the results of experiments, but the processes used to obtain those results. Marcelle Soares-Santos of the Fermilab Center for Particle Astrophysics took the stage dressed as the Doctor from “Doctor Who,” complete with a sonic screwdriver and a model TARDIS, to explore the effects of dark energy through time.

Joseph Zennamo of the University of Chicago brought the audience along on a high-energy journey through the “Weird and Wonderful World of Neutrinos,” as his talk was called. And Vic Gehman of Los Alamos National Laboratory blew minds with a presentation about supernova bursts and the creation of everything and everyone in the universe.

The slammers at this year's Fermilab Physics Slam were, Michael Hildreth, University of Notre Dame (far left); Marcelle Soares-Santos, Fermilab (second from left); Vic Gehman, Los Alamos National Laboratory (third from left); Wes Ketchum, Fermilab (second from right); Joseph Zennamo, University of Chicago. Fermilab Director Nigel Lockyer (third from right) congratulated all the participants. Photo: Cindy Arnold

The slammers at this year’s Fermilab Physics Slam were, Michael Hildreth, University of Notre Dame (far left); Marcelle Soares-Santos, Fermilab (second from left); Vic Gehman, Los Alamos National Laboratory (third from left); Wes Ketchum, Fermilab (second from right); Joseph Zennamo, University of Chicago. Fermilab Director Nigel Lockyer (third from right) congratulated all the participants. Photo: Cindy Arnold

The winner was Fermilab’s Wes Ketchum, a member of the MicroBooNE collaboration. Ketchum’s work-intensive presentation used claymation to show how different particles interact inside a liquid-argon particle detector, depicting them as multicolored monsters bumping into one another and creating electrons for the detector’s sensors to pick up. Audience members won’t soon forget the sight of a large oxygen monster eating red-blob electrons.

After the slam, the five scientists took questions from the audience, including one about dark matter and neutrinos from an eight-year-old boy, sparking much discussion. Chris Miller, speech professor at the College of DuPage, made his third appearance as master of ceremonies for the Physics Slam, and thanked the audience — particularly the younger attendees — for making the trek to Fermilab on a Friday night to learn more about science.

Video of this year’s Physics Slam is available on Fermilab’s YouTube channel.

Andre Salles

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Stanley Wojcicki awarded 2015 Panofsky Prize

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014

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

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Fermilab’s Oliver Gutsche keeps LHC community computing

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

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

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New technique for generating RF power may dramatically cut linac costs

Monday, November 3rd, 2014

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

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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

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