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Posts Tagged ‘education’

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

  1. The Standard Model: from geometry to detectors

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

  1. Essence and representation: the wavefunction

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

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

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

magritte_pipe

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

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

bubbleplakat

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

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

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

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I feel it mine

Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

On Saturday, 4 October, Nikhef – the Dutch National Institute for Subatomic Physics where I spend long days and efforts – opened its doors, labs and facilities to the public. In addition to Nikhef, all the other institutes located in the so-called “Science Park” – the scientific district located in the east part of Amsterdam – welcomed people all day long.

It’s the second “Open Day” that I’ve attended, both as a guest and as guide. Together with my fellow theoreticians we provided answers and explanations to people’s questions and curiosities, standing in the “Big Bang Theory Corner” of the main hall. Each department in Nikhef arranged its own stand and activities, and there were plenty of things to be amazed at to cover the entire day.

The research institutes in Science Park (and outside it) offer a good overview of the concept of research, looking for what is beyond the current status of knowledge. “Verder kijken”, or looking further, is the motto of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, my Dutch alma mater.

I deeply like this attitude of research, the willingness to investigating what’s around the corner. As they like to define themselves, Dutch people are “future oriented”: this is manifest in several things, from the way they read the clock (“half past seven” becomes “half before eight” in Dutch) to some peculiarities of the city itself, like the presence of a lot of cultural and research institutes.

This abundance of institutes, museums, exhibitions, public libraries, music festivals, art spaces, and independent cinemas makes me feel this city as cultural place. People interact with culture in its many manifestations and are connected to it in a more dynamic way than if they were only surrounded by historical and artistic.

Back to the Open Day and Nikhef, I was pleased to see lots of people, families with kids running here and there, checking out delicate instruments with their curious hands, and groups of guys and girls (also someone who looked like he had come straight from a skate-park) stopping by and looking around as if it were their own courtyard.

The following pictures give some examples of the ongoing activities:

We had a model of the ATLAS detector built with Legos: amazing!

IMG_0770

Copyright Nikhef

And not only toy-models. We had also true detectors, like a cloud chamber that allowed visitors to see the traces of particles passing by!

ADL_167796

Copyright Nikhef

Weak force and anti-matter are also cool, right?

ADL_167823

Copyright Nikhef

The majority of people here (not me) are blond and/or tall, but not tall enough to see cosmic rays with just their eyes… So, please ask the experts!

ADL_167793

Copyright Nikhef

I think I can summarize the huge impact and the benefit of such a cool day with the words of one man who stopped by one of the experimental setups. He listened to the careful (but a bit fuzzy) explanation provided by one of the students, and said “Thanks. Now I feel it mine too.”

Many more photos are available here: enjoy!

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Physics Laboratory: Back to Basics

Friday, October 10th, 2014

Dark matter –  it’s essential to our universe, it’s mysterious and it brings to mind cool things like space, stars, and galaxies. I have been fascinated by it since I was a child, and I feel very lucky to be a part for the search for it. But that’s not actually what I’m going to be talking about today.

I am a graduate student just starting my second year in the High Energy Physics group at UCL, London. Ironically, as a dark matter physicist working in the LUX (Large Underground Xenon detector) and LZ (LUX-ZEPLIN) collaborations, I’m actually dealing with very low energy physics.
When people ask what I do, I find myself saying different things, to differing responses:

  1. “I’m doing a PhD in physics” – reaction: person slowly backs away
  2. “I’m doing a PhD in particle physics” – reaction: some interest, mention of the LHC, person mildly impressed
  3. “I’m doing a PhD in astro-particle physics” – reaction: mild confusion but still interested, probably still mention the Large Hadron Collider
  4. “I’m looking for dark matter!” – reaction: awe, excitement, lots of questions

This obviously isn’t true in all cases, but has been the general pattern assumed. Admittedly, I enjoy that people are impressed, but sometimes I struggle to find a way to explain to people not in physics what I actually do day to day. Often I just say, “it’s a lot of computer programming; I analyse data from a detector to help towards finding a dark matter signal”, but that still induces a panicked look in a lot of people.

Nevertheless, I actually came across a group of people who didn’t ask anything about what I actually do last week, and I found myself going right back to basics in terms of the physics I think about daily. Term has just started, and that means one thing: undergraduates. The frequent noise they make as they stampede past my office going the wrong way to labs makes me wonder if the main reason for sending them away for so long is to give the researchers the chance to do their work in peace.

Nonetheless, somehow I found myself in the undergraduate lab on Friday. I had to ask myself why on earth I had chosen to demonstrate – I am, almost by definition, terrible in a lab. I am clumsy and awkward, and even the most simple equipment feels unwieldy in my hands. During my own undergrad, my overall practical mark always brought my average mark down for the year. My masters project was, thank god, entirely computational. But thanks to a moment of madness (and the prospect of earning a little cash, as London living on a PhD stipend is hard), I have signed up to be a lab demonstrator for the new first year physicists.

Things started off awkwardly as I was told to brief them on the experiment and realised I had not a great deal to say.  I got more into the swing of things as time went by, but I still felt like I’d been thrown in the deep end. I told the students I was a second year PhD student; one of them got the wrong end of the stick and asked if I knew a student who was a second year undergrad here. I told him I was postgraduate and he looked quite embarrassed, whilst I couldn’t help but laugh at the thought of the chaos that would ensue if a second year demonstrated the first year labs.

oscilloscope

The oscilloscope: the nemesis of physics undergrads in labs everywhere

None of them asked what my PhD was in. They weren’t interested – somehow I had become a faceless authority who told them what to do and had no other purpose. I am not surprised – they are brand new to university, and more importantly, they were pretty distracted by the new experience of the laboratory. That’s not to say they particularly enjoyed it, they seemed to have very little enthusiasm for the experiment. It was a very simple task: measuring the speed of sound in air using a frequency generator, an oscillator and a ruler. For someone now accustomed to dealing with data from a high tech dark matter detector, it was bizarre! I do find the more advanced physics I learn, the worse I become at the basics, and I had to go aside for a moment with a pen and paper to reconcile the theory in my head – it was embarrassing, to say the least!

Their frustration at the task was evident – there were frequent complaints over the length of time they were writing for, over the experimental ‘aims’ and ‘objectives’, of the fact they needed to introduce their diagrams before drawing them, etc. Eyes were rolling at me. I was going to have to really try to drill it in that this was indeed an important exercise. The panic I could sense from them was a horrible reminder of how I used to feel in my own labs. It’s hard to understand at that point that this isn’t just some form of torture, you are actually learning some very valuable and transferrable skills about how to conduct a real experiment. Some examples:

  1. Learn to write EVERYTHING down, you might end up in court over something and some tiny detail might save you.
  2. Get your errors right. You cannot claim a discovery without an uncertainty, that’s just physics. Its difficult to grasp, but you can never fully prove a hypothesis, only provide solid evidence towards it.
  3. Understand the health and safety risks – they seem pointless and stupid when the only real risk seems to be tripping over your bags, but speaking as someone who has worked down a mine with pressurised gases, high voltages and radioactive sources, they are extremely important and may be the difference between life and death.

In the end, I think my group did well. They got the right number for the speed of sound and their lab books weren’t a complete disaster. A few actually thanked me on their way out. 

It was a bit of a relief to get back to my laptop where I actually feel like I know what I am doing, but the experience was a stark reminder of where I was 5 years ago and how much I have learned. Choosing physics for university means you will have to struggle to understand things, work hard and exhaust yourself, but in all honestly it was completely worth it, at least for me. Measuring the speed of sound in air is just the beginning. One day, some of those students might be measuring the quarks inside a proton, or a distant black hole, or the quantum mechanical properties of a semiconductor. 

I’m back in the labs this afternoon, and I am actually quite looking forward to seeing how they cope this week, when we study that essential pillar of physics, conservation of momentum. I just hope they don’t start throwing steel ball-bearings at each other. Wish me luck.

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Why pure research?

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

With my first post on Quantum Diaries I will not address a technical topic; instead, I would like to talk about the act (or art) of “studying” itself. In particular, why do we care about fundamental research, pure knowledge without any practical purpose or immediate application?

A. Flexner in 1939 authored a contribution to Harper’s Magazine (issue 179) named “The usefulness of useless knowledge”. He opens the discussion with an interesting question: “Is it not a curios fact that in a world steeped in irrational hatreds which threaten civilization itself, men and women – old and young – detach themselves wholly or partly from the angry current of daily life to devote themselves to the cultivation of beauty, to the extension of knowledge […] ?”

Nowadays this interrogative is still present, and probably the need for a satisfactory answer is even stronger.

From a pragmatic point of view, we can argue that there are many important applications and spin-offs of theoretical investigations into the deep structure of Nature that did not arise immediately after the scientific discoveries. This is, for example, the case of QED and antimatter, the theories for which date back to the 1920s and are nowadays exploited in hospitals for imaging purposes (like in PET, positron emission tomography). The most important discoveries affecting our everyday life, from electricity to the energy bounded in the atom, came from completely pure and theoretical studies: electricity and magnetism, summarized in Maxwell’s equations, and quantum mechanics are shining examples.

It may seem that it is just a matter of time: “Wait enough, and something useful will eventually pop out of these abstract studies!” True. But that would not be the most important answer. To me this is: “Pure research is important because it generates knowledge and education”. It is our own contribution to the understanding of Nature, a short but important step in a marvelous challenge set up by the human mind.

Personally, I find that research into the yet unknown aspects of Nature responds to some partly conscious and partly unconscious desires. Intellectual achievements provide a genuine ‘spiritual’ satisfaction, peculiar to the art of studying. For sake of truth I must say that there are also a lot of dark sides: frustration, stress, graduate-depression effects, geographical and economic instability and so on. But leaving for a while all these troubles aside, I think I am pretty lucky in doing this job.

source_of_knowledge

Books, the source of my knowledge

During difficult times from the economic point of view, it is legitimate to ask also “Why spend a lot of money on expensive experiments like the Large Hadron Collider?” or “Why fund abstract research in labs and universities instead of investing in more socially useful studies?”

We could answer by stressing again the fact that many of the best innovations came from the fuzziest studies. But in my mind the ultimate answer, once for all, relies in the power of generating culture, and education through its diffusion. Everything occurs within our possibilities and limitations. A willingness to learn, a passion for teaching, blackboards, books and (super)computers: these are our tools.

Citing again Flexner’s paper: “The mere fact spiritual and intellectual freedoms bring satisfaction to an individual soul bent upon its own purification and elevation is all the justification that they need. […] A poem, a symphony, a painting, a mathematical truth, a new scientific fact, all bear in themselves all the justification that universities, colleges and institutes of research need or require.”

Last but not least, it is remarkable to think about how many people from different parts of the world may have met and collaborated while questing together after knowledge. This may seem a drop in the ocean, but research daily contributes in generating a culture of peace and cooperation among people with different cultural backgrounds. And that is for sure one of the more important practical spin-offs.

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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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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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A version of this press release came out on on June 12, 2014.

Pi poles are part of a new exhibit for kids at Fermilab's Lederman Science Center, an educational center that houses resources for K-12 teachers and hosts science activities for students. Photo: Cindy Arnold

Pi poles are part of a new exhibit for kids at Fermilab’s Lederman Science Center, an educational center that houses resources for K-12 teachers and hosts science activities for students. Photo: Cindy Arnold

If you want to get children interested in the fundamentals of science, there’s nothing like letting them experience the phenomena first-hand. If you can make it fun at the same time, you have a formula for success.

That’s the thinking behind Fermilab’s in-progress outdoor physics exhibits, located near the Lederman Science Center. The Lederman Science Center is an educational center that houses science resources for K-12 teachers and hosts science activities for students. The Fermilab Education Office has just unveiled the latest exhibits, which allow kids to learn about basic principles of physics while playing in the sunshine.

The two new exhibits, called Wave Like a Particle and Swing Like Neutrinos, are combined into one newly built structure consisting of two poles shaped like the Greek letter Pi. Kids can make waves of various sizes by moving the rope that stretches between the two poles, thereby learning about wave propagation, one of the primary concepts of particle physics.

Children can also use the Swing Like Neutrinos portion of the exhibit – a pair of pendulums hanging from one of the Pi-shaped poles – to learn about coupled oscillations, a basic physics principle.

“Kids learn in different ways,” said Spencer Pasero of Fermilab’s Education Office. “The idea of the outdoor exhibits is to instill a love of learning into kids who respond to hands-on, fun activities.”

The Wave Like a Particle and Swing Like Neutrinos exhibits were built with funds through Fermilab Friends for Science Education, an Illinois not-for-profit organization supporting the Fermilab Education Office. Contributions were received from an anonymous donor and a grant from the Community Foundation of the Fox River Valley.

The new exhibits join the Run Like a Proton accelerator path, which opened in May 2013. Using this feature, kids can mimic protons and antiprotons as they race along Fermilab’s accelerator chain.

“We hope this series of exhibits will activate kids’ imaginations and that they immerse themselves in the physics we’ve been doing at Fermilab for decades,” Pasero said.

Fermilab is located 35 miles outside Chicago, Illnois. The Lederman Science Center is open to the public Monday to Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The Community Foundation of the Fox River Valley is a non-profit philanthropic organization based in Aurora, Illinois that administers individual charitable funds from which grants and scholarships are distributed to benefit the citizens of the Greater Aurora Area, the TriCities and Kendall County Illinois. For more information, please see www.communityfoundationfrv.org.

Fermilab is America’s national laboratory for particle physics 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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On the Shoulders of…

Monday, April 14th, 2014

My first physics class wasn’t really a class at all. One of my 8th grade teachers noticed me carrying a copy of Kip Thorne’s Black Holes and Time Warps, and invited me to join a free-form book discussion group on physics and math that he was holding with a few older students. His name was Art — and we called him by his first name because I was attending, for want of a concise term that’s more precise, a “hippie” school. It had written evaluations instead of grades and as few tests as possible; it spent class time on student governance; and teachers could spend time on things like, well, discussing books with a few students without worrying about whether it was in the curriculum or on the tests. Art, who sadly passed some years ago, was perhaps best known for organizing the student cafe and its end-of-year trip, but he gave me a really great opportunity. I don’t remember learning anything too specific about physics from the book, or from the discussion group, but I remember being inspired by how wonderful and crazy the universe is.

My second physics class was combined physics and math, with Dan and Lewis. The idea was to put both subjects in context, and we spent a lot of time on working through how to approach problems that we didn’t know an equation for. The price of this was less time to learn the full breadth subjects; I didn’t really learn any electromagnetism in high school, for example.

When I switched to a new high school in 11th grade, the pace changed. There were a lot more things to learn, and a lot more tests. I memorized elements and compounds and reactions for chemistry. I learned calculus and studied a bit more physics on the side. In college, where the physics classes were broad and in depth at the same time, I needed to learn things fast and solve tricky problems too. By now, of course, I’ve learned all the physics I need to know — which is largely knowing who to ask or which books to look in for the things I need but don’t remember.

There are a lot of ways to run schools and to run classes. I really value knowledge, and I think it’s crucial in certain parts of your education to really buckle down and learn the facts and details. I’ve also seen the tremendous worth of taking the time to think about how you solve problems and why they’re interesting to solve in the first place. I’m not a high school teacher, so I don’t think I can tell the professionals how to balance all of those goods, which do sometimes conflict. What I’m sure of, though, is that enthusiasm, attention, and hard work from teachers is a key to success no matter what is being taught. The success of every physicist you will ever see on Quantum Diaries is built on the shoulders of the many people who took the time to teach and inspire them when they were young.

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This originally appeared in Fermilab Today on Jan. 23, 2014.

Fermilab docent Toni Mueller shows students a model of a beamline. The Midwest Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics coordinators offered participants a tour of Fermilab or Argonne. Photo: Amanda Solliday

Fermilab docent Toni Mueller shows students a model of a beamline. The Midwest Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics coordinators offered participants a tour of Fermilab or Argonne. Photo: Amanda Solliday

Seventy female college students in hard hats descended into the MINOS cavern, walked through the Tevatron tunnel and explored the Linac beamline as part of the Midwest Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics Friday, Jan. 17.

“The first time I toured Fermilab, it wasn’t what I was expecting at all, even after two years of college-level physics,” said Savannah Thais, a senior physics major at The University of Chicago. “I had no idea what it was like to do science all day, every day.”

Thais attended the 2013 conference and this year volunteered for the local organizing committee. She hopes participants will see the scientists and engineers at national laboratories as potential role models. The conference organizers also aim to provide female physics students a chance to connect with each other.

“Many times, especially at smaller colleges and universities, there are not many women in physics departments. You might be the only girl in your classes,” Thais said. “So we hope the participants can meet other female undergrads who share some of the same goals as they do.”

Sahar Jalal, a senior math and physics double major at Grinnell College, says she enjoys learning about the large-scale research projects.

“I didn’t know there were so many international collaborations at Fermilab,” Jalal said during lunch at Wilson Hall.

In between tour stops, 28 Fermilab scientists, engineers, science writers and docents met with students over the noon meal.

The Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics rotate each year to different sites nationwide. The University of Chicago hosted this year’s Midwest conference, partnering with other area universities and institutions.

The location allowed organizers to offer a Fermilab tour for the first time. The 250 Midwest participants could also choose to visit Argonne, while students at the other regional conferences visited Berkeley, Brookhaven and Livermore national laboratories.

Particle physicists play a particularly active role in the conferences, said Kevin Pitts, a physics professor at the University of Illinois. He notes the two national co-chairs and three Midwest organizing committee members work in particle physics.

Sam Zeller, a Fermilab staff scientist on the local committee, welcomed the chance to offer young scientists a glimpse into the life of a researcher.

“Seeing a national laboratory was a big thing for me as an undergraduate,” Zeller said. “It made me think about physics as a career, so it’s nice to give that opportunity back to the next generation of students.”

Amanda Solliday

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This Fermilab press release came out today.

Fermilab's new Run Like A Proton accelerator path at the Lederman Science Center is now open. Photo: Reidar Hahn

Fermilab’s new Run Like A Proton accelerator path at the Lederman Science Center is now open. Photo: Reidar Hahn

It’s one thing for kids to try to envision particles zipping around underground when learning about the science at Fermilab. It’s another thing entirely for them to pretend to be particles charging along an accelerator path, revealing new physics as they fly by.

This week the Fermilab Education Office celebrated the completion of its new Run Like A Proton accelerator path for middle- and high-school-age visitors to the laboratory.

Located at the Lederman Science Center, the path is an aboveground, scaled-down version of the routes a particle can take through Fermilab’s accelerator complex. While running along the path, kids can act like they are the particles of the lab’s physics program zipping through underground tunnels.

“Kids have different modes of learning,” said Spencer Pasero of Fermilab’s Education Office. “They can learn about the work of the lab with our indoor exhibits, but now they can also learn about it through our new outdoor playground.”

It’s a playground with a physics lesson. Kids playing the parts of protons and antiprotons “collide” by high-fiving each other as they run along the accelerator path. Signs along the path guide them in the right direction, whether they want to follow the path a proton would take as it circles the Main Injector or assume the flight of a neutrino headed toward Minnesota.

Kids won’t be limited to playing the part of particle. If they want a role as someone who sets the particles in motion, they can learn about how an operator interacts with the accelerator complex as she works with her controls on the playground.

At more than 100 feet across – longer than a basketball court – the path gives kids plenty of space to let loose in their particle impressions.

The accelerator path is the first stage in the laboratory’s long-term plan to build a larger physics playground.

The Fermilab Education Office has already taken the Run Like A Proton accelerator path for a test drive with a few student groups, and the new outdoor feature has been a hit.

“Students run like a proton around the accelerator path, and afterward when they go on a tour of Fermilab, the docents ask them, ‘Remember when you were running like a proton?’” said Marge Bardeen, head of the Education Office. “And they remember! What a great way to learn.”

The Run Like A Proton accelerator path is made possible by a grant from the Kane County Riverboat Fund and a contribution from an anonymous donor, both through the Fermilab Friends for Science Education, which supports innovative programs at Fermilab. A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the playground was held on Tuesday, May 21, at the Lederman Science Center.

The Lederman Science Center is open to the public Monday to Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

“We hope this playground will activate kids’ imaginations and that they immerse themselves in the physics we’ve been doing at the lab for 30 years,” Pasero said.

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