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Posts Tagged ‘life at the lab’

Life in science, in Science

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Just a quick note here to point out a very nice article by Adrian Cho in Science magazine about life in the trenches on ATLAS and CMS, the biggest LHC experiments. I think it captures the working environment very well — it’s a fascinating balance of collaboration and competition. Beyond that, I’ll let Adrian, and the physicists he interviewed, speak for themselves. Enjoy!



An astute viewer of the Big Bang Theory TV show from the school of physics at Georgia Tech noticed that the white board in Leonard and Sheldon’s apartment had on it a plot for a result from the CDF experiment at Fermilab. The image of the plot from the episode was posted on the school’s Facebook site and later the Internet.

And not just any plot. The plot.

The one that has caused debate in the blogosphere and media and put the Tevatron’s two collider experiments at odds.

April 7 CDF announced it had seen an unexpected spike in its data, “a bump” as physicists call it,  that potentially could signal a new particle or force, but more data was needed to know for sure. Science lovers jumped at the news and speculations about what this could mean abounded.

Discussions took a turn when DZero’s results released June 10 found no such bump.

The experiments will continue to analyze larger data sets and compare data until “the bump” is verified or disputed beyond a doubt. So stay tuned. I’m sure the Big Bang Theory writers will.

George Smoot (in Sheldon's seat, no less!) on the set of Big Bang Theory. Photo courtesy of George Smoot.

Scientists help advise the show’s writers, and the show has a history of making references to current experiments or leaders in the field. And sometimes physicists even make cameos.

In 2009 Nobel laureate George Smoot, professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, research physicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and a confessed fan of the show, agreed to appear in the episode.

The show averages about 9 million viewers a week but not all physicists are fans. In a symmetry magazine article Jennifer Ouellette Science blogger and author of the Buffyverse came her critique of the show and the high-energy physics communities reaction to it.

Personally I think the community should embrace the program. I think the public is smart enough to recognize the stereotypes and formulaic dating plots for what they are and not a documentary-type representation of physicists. Plus the show exposes people to the science, which is never a bad thing. I have met many people who had never heard of particle physics prior to watching the Big Bang Theory or reading “Angles and Demons”.  While not all of these people were enticed to learn more about particle physics, some were, and no one came away with a negative view of the science.  

—  Tona Kunz


Illustration: Fermilab/Diana Canzone

Two weeks ago, my Aunt and Grand mom (G-Mom) came from New Jersey to visit me at Fermilab.  The first thing they wanted to see was the house in Fermilab Village where my bride-to-be and I would be living for the rest of my graduate career.  G-Mom was impressed: “They hung pictures on the walls for you!”

Then it got complicated. G-Mom asked me what I do.

”I do nuclear physics with the MINERvA, a neutrino interactions experiment.  This detector has an array of nuclear targets that vary in size.  By looking at events that occur in nuclei of different size, we can discover things about those nuclei.” (See notation ** below)

Her follow-up question was: “How is it you find that interesting?”

I told her that what we do in nuclear/particle physics is try to solve mysteries and puzzles, and I like doing that.  Being an avid reader of mystery novels and voracious solver of cross-word puzzles, G-Mom was on-board with this reasoning.  So, I tried to explain the mysteries of nuclear physics that MINERvA will investigate in the style of a Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe private detective novel…

MINERvA, Intra-Nuclear Detective”

MINERvA was starting to lose her cool.  Of all the detectors in all the world, this proton walked into her’s.

After 23 hours of interrogating this proton about what he was doing at the time of the boson exchange, he wasn’t revealing sign one  The had detector picked up the proton in the vicinity of the incident.  His usual accomplice, the muon, was seen fleeing north, where he was apprehended by MINOS, the adjacent detector.  Even with the proton refusing to talk, the greenest rookie could spot a muon and a proton in the final state and tell you this was a case of charged-current quasi-elastic neutrino scattering.

It happens all the time at these energies.  A neutrino with a few GeV of kinetic energy flies deep into some back-alley nucleus and meets up with a neutron.  The deal goes down quickly: a W+ is exchanged; the neutron, fed its fix of charge, is now a proton; the neutrino flies away as a muon, thanked for its troubles with a charge of his own.  This is textbook quasi-elastic scattering.

But this was not a textbook case.  MINERvA had in her custody not one, but two protons!  Only after she drained the last drop of espresso would MINERvA allow her weary legs to drag her back to the interrogation room.  The questioning was fast and direct.

A diagram of "textbook" quasi-elastic scattering.

“Listen Proton, we know you and the muon came out of a carbon nucleus.  Was it quasi-elastic scattering?”

“Sure, but it wasn’t me.  It was the other proton.”

“The other proton told us the same thing.  Then what were you doing fleeing the nucleus?”

“I already told you: I watched the neutrino come in and scatter off a neutron.  Guy turns into a proton and runs right into me!”

“That’s what they all say.  We think both of you protons were directly involved in the scattering.”

“Oh, yeah? How are you going to prove it?  You don’t have jurisdiction inside the nucleus!

The proton was right.  Experiments are not able to see inside the nucleus.  It could not be proven that the protons were involved directly in the neutrino interaction.

But MINERvA was getting close to connecting the dots enough to figure out what this gang of particles was doing inside the nucleus. They couldn’t hide forever. Soon MINERvA would unravel their pattern and tell all the detectors in the world what was going on.

MINERvA collaboration. Credit: Fermilab/Reidar Hahn

** When an interaction happens inside of a large nucleus, the particles involved in the neutrino interaction (“primary particles”) must travel through a sea of protons and neutrons to get outside the nucleus, where they can be detected.  Primary particles may interact with the other protons and neutrons on their way out.  For example, a primary proton can knock out another proton from the nucleus.  Then the experiment will observe two protons coming out of the nucleus (“final state particles”).  The messiness of primary particles interacting on their way out of the nucleus is called Final State Interactions (FSI).  MINERvA will measure FSI in its wide range of nuclei, thus revealing clues about the mysterious inner-workings of the nucleus.


— Brian Tice

Related posts:

• MINERvA model for building research bridge with Latin American
• Meet MINERvA: a blend of particle and nuclear physics
• MINERvA Decathlon
MINERvA sees its first neutrinos!


Editor’s Note:  Fermilab is getting ready for its annual meeting that draws together many of the 2,311 scientists across the U.S. and globe that work with Fermilab as well as staff physicists and engineers. While it could be a time of sadness and reflection with the Tevatron set to shutdown, physicists are finding that Fermilab still has a lot to offer in terms of exciting, ground-breaking science as Fermilab Director Pier Oddone outlines in his weekly column.

This article first appeared in Fermilab Today May 24.

The 44th edition of the Users’ Meeting will take place on June 1 and 2, and it should be very exciting. The Users’ Meeting is a well-established tradition at Fermilab. Every year it showcases results from the entire Fermilab experimental program, alongside discussions of the lab’s future program and presentations from government officials about policies applicable to particle physics. This year we are very fortunate to have the Secretary of Energy, Dr. Steven Chu, presenting the Meeting’s public lecture at 8 p.m. on June 2.

This year has a special edge as we approach the end of data collection at the Tevatron. This remarkable machine is achieving luminosities considered impossible decades ago with antiprotons — more than 4 x 1032 cm-2sec-1 instantaneous luminosity, with 11 femtobarns of accumulated luminosity recently celebrated.

The Tevatron’s two international collaborations CDF and DZero have many achievements of their own, including major discoveries that have established our Standard Model of particle physics. There is still juice left in the Tevatron and we may yet establish processes beyond the Standard Model if some of the collaborations’ recent results are confirmed. We also have hints of unexpected results in the neutrino sector, with neutrino oscillation data from MiniBooNE and MINOS.

Looking to the future, MINERvA is laying the foundation for understanding different nuclear targets, NOvA construction is proceeding well, and there are new proposals to extend MINOS running. The Dark Energy Survey is nearing completion, better detectors are in development for the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search, and the COUPP dark matter search is operating a small prototype at Sudbury and a larger 60 kg prototype in the NuMI tunnel. Pierre Auger continues to provide interesting results with ultra-high-energy cosmic rays. And the LHC is working splendidly and results are coming out at a fast pace.

We are also in a critical year for two long-term projects, LBNE and Project X. In addition to Project X’s broad Intensity Frontier physics program, it can serve as a foundation for a neutrino factory if one is needed to fully understand the physics of neutrinos. Looking even farther ahead, we are studying the feasibility of muon colliders as a path back to the Energy Frontier.
All this activity augurs a great Users’ Meeting next week.

–Pier Oddone, Fermilab director


The number of Latin Americans working on the MINERvA experiment is unusual for a high-energy physics experiment. Among our Latin American collaborators, you’ll find professors, postdocs, graduate students and undergraduate students from countries such as Mexico, Brazil, Peru and Chile.

Cristian Pena in front of the MINERvA detector. Credit: Fermilab/Reidar Hahn

Being part of MINERvA offers many opportunities. For example, graduate students can complete their Ph.D. theses using MINERvA data, and many also have the opportunity to work at Fermilab, where they share ideas and knowledge with other students, postdocs, and professors from around the world. Working on MINERvA provides Latin American scientists the opportunity to perform research at the frontiers of experimental high-energy physics. The projects and studies on which we work are crucial for the experiment and for the neutrino physics program worldwide.

In my particular case, I am from Universidad Técnica Federico Santa María in Valparaíso, Chile. I recently had the opportunity and honor to be at Fermilab for five months working on two different projects. This experience was really exciting and challenging. I really learned a lot of physics and programming, understood more deeply how the experiment works, improved my English, and had the opportunity to meet and work directly with many experienced people in the field.

In terms of my personal life, it was a bit difficult to get accustomed to all the changes, such as language, food and geographical distances (my commute in Chile is just a five-minute walk). And once I got used to these, it started snowing. When I was first told about the weather at Fermilab, I said, “Oh come on. You must be exaggerating”, but clearly I was wrong. I really enjoyed meeting all the people in the collaboration and was interested to find out that Spanish from other Latin American countries is quite different – most people were not able to understand me when I used my spoken Chilean-Spanish. But now all those difficulties are just memories, thanks to the help Guiliano (my Chilean partner and roommate) and I received from the other Latin American folks at Fermilab.

MINERvA detector construction. Credit: Fermilab

When I returned to Chile a month ago, I realized that it would have been much more difficult to have this opportunity 10 years ago. I am really thankful for the efforts of Fermilab and the MINERvA experiment to make this possible, as well as the joint efforts that the Latin American Universities and their governments have made.

The fact that the number of Latin Americans in the MINERvA experiment is large is evidence of the science development which has started in our region. It also reinforces the importance of the efforts that institutions and governments are making to achieve the altruistic goal of developing science in their countries.

I would like to thank Jorge Morfin, who is working really hard to make collaborations like this possible; William Brooks, who is the leader of the experimental high-energy group of Universidad Técnica Federico Santa María and who keeps working to maintain and give the same opportunity to other Latin American students; and Deborah Harris and Kevin McFarland, the spokespersons of the experiment. I also want to thank the whole MINERvA collaboration who is doing a really nice job and pushing really hard to obtain the results the physics community is waiting for.

— Cristian Peña

Related information:
*Read about Cristian earning the Fulbright award

*From Peru to MINERvA

*Fermilab helps increase Mexican high-energy physics research

*Fermilab helps increase Brazilian high-energy physics research


Hello again!

I thought I might take some time to describe what an experimental particle physicist actually does on a day-to-day basis.

I remember when I was an undergraduate studying physics, I found particle physics so fascinating.  It was this high tech world that seemed so glamorous.  But, at the time, I had no idea what a particle physicist did!  Big shiny detectors, and billion dollar machines were all that I knew about!

But, now that I’ve spent two years in the field, perhaps I can give you an idea of what happens “behind the scenes.”  I’m going to talk about cross-sections, and how we go about finding them.

(If you are unfamiliar with what a cross-section is, then take a look at these nice posts by Aidan Randle-Conde and Seth Zenz found here, and here, respectively.)


The Bane of My Existence: Coding

So one of the things I’ve gotten far better at over the years has been computer programming.  Sadly, I purposefully avoided almost all computer-programming classes during my undergraduate studies.  This was a horrifically stupid idea in retrospect.  And if anyone reading this is interested in pursuing a career in a math, science, or an engineering related discipline; my suggestion to you is learn to code before you’re expected to.  It will do wonders for your career.

Moving on though, long gone are the days were particle physics experiments relied on photographic plates and cloud chambers.  Nowadays our detectors record everything electronically.

The detectors spit out an electric signal.  Then we perform what is called “reconstruction” on these signals (using computer algorithms), to make physics objects (observable particles, like photons, electrons, muons, jets, etc…).

Now, if you are a computer programmer, you might know where I’m going with this discussion.  If not a bit of some background info is required.  There is something called object-oriented programming (OOP).  In OOP you make what is called a class.  A class is like a template, which you use make objects.

Imagine I own a factory that makes cars.  Somewhere in my factory are the blue prints for the cars I produce.  Well a blueprint is what a class is in OOP.  Each blueprint is a template for a car, just as each class is a template for an object.  So we see that in this analogy, a car represents an object.

Now classes have what are called methods and data members.  On the blueprint for the 2012 Ford Mustang there is a data member for the car’s color, and there is a method for what type of transmission the car will be manufactured with.  So data members store information (car’s color), and methods perform actions on objects (manufacture with transmission type X).

But what do classes and methods have to do with High Energy Physics?  Well, physicists use classes present in an OOP language to store and analyze our data.  In CMS we use two OOP languages to accomplish this; they are python and C++; and we make our own custom classes to store our data.

So what types of classes do we have?  Well, there are classes for all physics objects (electron, a muon, a jet, etc…), detector pieces, and various other things.  In fact we’ve created an entire software framework to perform our research.

But, lets take the electron class as an example.  Because of these classes, all electrons in our data have the same structure.  The way they are accessed is the same regardless of the electron; and all the information about a particular electron is stored/retrieved in the same way (via the methods & data members of the electron class).

This is a very good thing, because a physicist may have to look at hundreds of thousands of electrons in the course of their research; so having a standardized way to access information is beneficial.

So in summary, to do research and analyze data we write code, and we run our analysis code on super-computing clusters around the world.


Event Selection

Okay, now we know we need to write code to get anywhere, but what do we do from there?

Well we need to decide on what type of physics we want to study.  And how to find that physics in the data.

In 2010, the CMS detector recorded 43 inverse picobarns of data.  Now, there are approximately 7 * 1010 (or 70 billion) proton-proton collisions in one inverse pico-barn.  This makes for a total of  3 trillion recorded proton-proton collision events for 2010.

That’s a lot of data…and not all of it is going to be useful to a physicist.  But as they say, one person’s trash is another’s treasure.

For example, in my own analysis I look for low energy muons inside jets because this helps me find b-Jets in an event.  But an electro-weak physicist looking for W or Z’s decaying to muons is going to think the events that I use are garbage.  My muons are low energy whereas an electro-weak physicist needs high energy muons.  My muons are within jets whereas an electroweak physicist needs muons that are isolated (nothing else around them).  So while my data is perfect for the physics I’m trying  to do, it is worthless to an electroweak physicist.

With this in mind we as physicists make checklists of what an event needs for it to be considered useful.  This type of checklist is called a pre-selection, and it will include what type of data acquisition trigger was used; and a list of physics objects that must be present (and restrictions on them) in the event.

After an event has been tagged as being possibly useful to us, we investigate it further using another checklist, called a full event-selection.

For example, I might be interested in studying B-Physics, and I want to look at the correlations between two B-Hadrons produced in an event.


My pre-selection check-list for this might be:

  • Jets detected by the High Level Trigger
  • Presence of a Secondary Vertex in the event

My Event Selection Checklist might then be:

  • The most energetic jet in the event must have an energy above threshold X
  • The invariant mass of the secondary vertex must be above some value Y.


In case you are wondering, a secondary vertex is a point at which a heavy particle decayed within the detector, this occurs away from the primary vertex (point at which the protons collided).  The invariant mass of the secondary vertex is found by summing the invariant masses of all of the products that the heavy particle decayed into.

So in summary, we make checklists of what we are looking for; and then implement this into our computer code.



Finally we need to measure the efficiency of our selection process, or what percent of events that are created do we actually select.  We use a combination of real collision data and simulated data to make this estimation.  Then our efficiency is a measure of everything from the detectors ability to record the collision, our reconstruction process, and up to our specific selection techniques listed above.

The reason we need to measure this efficiency is that we are, more often then not, interested in performing inclusive measurements in physics.  Meaning, I want to study every single proton-proton collision that could give insight into my physics process of interest (i.e all events in which two B-Hadrons were produced).

The problem is, I could never possibly study all such collisions.  For one, we are colliding protons every 50 nano-seconds at the LHC currently.  We design our trigger system to only capture the most interesting events, and this sometimes causes us to purposefully drop a few here and there.  But this is a story for another time, and Aidan has done a good job describing this already in this post.

Anyway, so we convert our measurements back to this “inclusive” case.  This conversion allows us to say, “well if we were able to record all possible events, this is what our results would look like.”

But how is this accomplished?  Well, one way to do this is restrict ourselves to the point of which our data acquisition triggers have an efficiency of greater then 99%.


Courtesy of the CMS Collaboration


Here is a plot that shows the efficiency to record an event via several single jet triggers available in CMS.  Three triggers are plotted here, they each have a minimum energy/momentum threshold to detect a jet.

As an example, if in a proton-proton collision, a jet is produced with a momentum of 50 GeV/c; then this event will be recorded:

  • 99% of the time by the trigger represented by the green line
  • 50% of the time by the trigger represented by the blue line
  • 0% of the time by the trigger represented by the red line (The Jet’s momentum isn’t high enough for that  trigger!).

So by playing with the jet energy thresholds in our Event Selection above, I can ensure that my detector will inclusively record all events in  this region of phase space (99% or higher chance to record an event).

But as I said earlier this is just one way we can transform our measurements into inclusive measurements.  There are usually other steps that must also be done to get back to the inclusive case.


Experimental Cross-Section

Now that I’ve selected my events and physics objects within those events; and determined the efficiency of this process, I’m ready to make my measurement.

This part of the process takes much less time then our previous two steps.  In fact, it may take months for physicists to write our analysis code, and become confident in our selection techniques (rigorous investigation is required for this part).

Then, to determine an inclusive cross-section with respect to some quantity (say the angle between two B-Hadrons), I make a histogram.

The angle between two B-Hadrons can be between 0 and 180 degrees.  So the x-axis of this histogram is in degrees, and is binned into different regions.  The y-axis is then counts, or number of times I observed a B-Hadron pair with angle φ between them.

Next, I need to divide by the number of counts in each bin of my histogram by three things:


  1. The integrated luminosity of my data sample (see Aidan’s post “What the L!?”), this makes the Y-Axis go from counts to units of inverse barn (or more appropriately, inverse picobarn).
  2. My selection efficiency, this takes my measurement to the inclusive case
  3. The width of each bin, this puts my cross-section purely in units of inverse barn (rather then inverse barn times degrees)


And finally, I’m left with a cross-section:

Image Courtesy of the CMS Collaboration.  Here the data points are shown in black, and the theoretical prediction is shown in green.


I’m now left with the differential scattering cross-section, for the production of 2 B-Hadrons, with respect to the angle between the two B-Hadrons.

Three cross-sections are actually plotted here.  Each of them corresponds to one of the triggers in our efficiency graph above.  The researchers who made this plot also multiplied two of the distributions by a factor of 2 and a factor of 4 (as shown in the legend).  This was done so the three curves wouldn’t fall on top of each other, and other scientists could interpret the data in an easier fashion.

This plot tells us that, at LHC Energies, B-Hadron pairs are more likely to be produced with small angles between them (the data points near the zero region on the x-axis are higher then the other points).  This is because a process called gluon splitting (a gluon splits into a quark and anti-quark) occurs more often then other processes.  Due to conservation of momentum, the angle between the quark/anti-quark that the gluon split into is very small.  But this is also a lengthy discussion for another time!

But that’s how we experimentally measure cross-sections, from start to finish.  We need to: write computer code, make a checklists of what we are looking for, determine the efficiency of our selection technique, and then make our measurement.

So hopefully this gives you an idea as to what an experimental particle physicists actually does on a day to day basis.  This is by no means all we do, measuring cross-sections is only one part of the research being done at the LHC.  I could not hope to, in a single post, cover all of our research activities.


Until next time,






Dave Schmitz in front of the MINERvA detector at Fermilab. Credit: Fermilab

This story appeared April 7 in the DOE blog energy.gov. Dave Schmitz often posts on Quantum Diaries.

Particle physicist Dave Schmitz works on the MINERvA experiment at Fermi National Accelerator Lab — he took some time to tell us why neutrinos (electrically neutral, subatomic particles) are important to the universe and why the time 1:32am has special meaning for his experiment. And, check out Dr. Schmitz’s talk  — “In One Ear and Out the Other: A Talk about Neutrino”  — as part of Fermilab’s ‘Physics for Everyone’ lecture series.

Question: What sparked your interest in pursuing a career in science?

I started my career in science relatively late. I originally started as an architectural engineering student in college. I didn’t change to physics until late in my fourth year as an undergraduate. I had read several physics books for a public audience and became interested in learning more. I decided to enroll in a Physics III course as an elective towards my engineering degree. I remember my advisor thinking that I was completely nuts and only reluctantly signing my enrollment card. Maybe he was so hesitant because he feared I would not return to architecture.  
That semester, the class touched on the concepts of relativity and quantum mechanics for the first time. My professor was very enthusiastic and would happily spend extra time out of class discussing anything I wanted. At the end of that semester I joined a research group studying neutrinos produced by distant cosmological sources that interacted in the polar ice cap at the South Pole. In December 2000, I had the thrill of traveling to the experiment for two weeks to deploy some new equipment. If I wasn’t already hooked on a career in science, a trip to the bottom of the earth sealed the deal.   
Q: You’re a physicist and a neutrino expert. Why did you choose this field?
DS: Neutrinos first sparked my interest as an undergraduate. The idea that neutrinos could be used to tell us something new and exciting about an object on the other side of the universe was pretty incredible to me. Then in graduate school I had the opportunity to work on an experiment that was searching for a completely new kind of neutrino that we had never even seen before. I worked on the MiniBooNE experiment at Fermilab which was searching for evidence of “sterile” neutrinos, a new type that did not interact via any of the currently known forces. It turns out there remain many interesting unanswered questions about the fundamental nature of the neutrino. We now know that neutrinos do have a tiny mass, but we have not been able to measure its value — we only know that it isn’t zero. There is also the possibility that neutrinos and their antiparticles (simply called antineutrinos) may behave differently in very subtle ways. We are planning experiments now to search for such differences, which could be a big part of the explanation for why the universe we live in is dominated by matter with little to no antimatter. In this way, neutrinos could fill in a critical piece to our understanding of how the universe has evolved into the amazing (and, thankfully, hospitable!) place we see around us.

See the rest of the article at energy.gov.

This screen image from the Tevatron main control room shows how the earthquake in Japan March 11 affects superconducting quadrupole magnets in the accelerator tunnel.

When the 8.9-magnitude earthquake struck Japan last week, Fermilab felt the jolt emotionally and physically.

Accelerator operators in the main control room of the Tevatron saw the heart-rate-monitor-style tracking system for the more than 1,000 superconducting magnets go into cardiac arrest. This signaled the forward and backward pitch and side-to-side roll of the 4- ton, 20-foot-long magnets buried underground.

And that meant somewhere, something very bad had happened.

The monitor readings came from sensors called tiltmeters on underground magnets that steer particles around the four-mile Tevatron ring. They record vibrations too tiny for people at the laboratory to feel, including seismic waves from earthquakes thousands of miles away. The last time the magnets rocked like that was in 2010 when a 7-magnitude quake struck Haiti. The Tevatron also recorded a 2007 quake in Mexico, a 2006 quake in New Zealand, and earthquakes that triggered deadly tsunamis in Sumatra in 2005 and Indonesia in 2004. In all, the Tevatron has felt disaster more than 20 times.

A December 2010 symmetry magazine article explains how physicists first noticed the Tevatron’s super sensitivity, and how they work to make sure it doesn’t  interrupt the laboratory’s multi-million-dollar research efforts.

For accelerator operators, learning that the computer sqiggles signaled a quake in  Japan was an emotional blow. Fermilab
has a long and fruitful history of working with Japanese physicists and institutions. Japanese scientists have been involved with Fermilab from about the beginning of the experimental program in the early 1970s and became key members of the Tevatron’s CDF collaboration in the early 1980s.  Many Fermilab scientists, engineers and technicians have friends in Japan, from Japan or have worked at its high-energy physics laboratory, KEK, or JPARC, the high-energy accelerator complex.

In 2010, the most recent data available, Fermilab had 80 visiting researchers from Japanese institutions spread throughout the country, including the areas hardest hit by the earthquake and tsunami. Those scientists are valuable members of several experiments, particularly the CDF collaboration and the accelerator research program.  In all likelihood, the Japanese contribute even more to Fermilab’s research program because the also work at the laboratory as users from non-Japanese institutions, but a statistic on the number of those users is unavailable.

— Tona Kunz


A Naperville North High School student gives a hover craft a start during the Fermilab Open House. Credit: Fermilab/Cindy Arnold

Darwin Smith gathered a group of students to drive four hours to exhibit physics concepts science-fair style at Fermilab.

The Hamilton high school teacher got no complaints from these seniors even though they were giving up a beautiful Sunday and many had only had a few hours of sleep. The draw was the rare chance to show their love for science and see how their skills stacked up to peers from big city schools.

Judging from the consistent crowds of children and adults that pressed up against their exhibits, this rural school stacked up just fine. During the five hours of the Fermilab Open House Feb. 27, the Hamilton students along with peers from other schools rarely had time to catch their breaths.

Fermilab’s first venture into showcasing student-designed, hands-on exhibits at its Open House delighted visitors and offered a chance for  students to flex their creative, independent study and critical thinking skills.

“They didn’t just take equipment we have and show it,” said Katherine Sequino, the science department chair at Naperville Central High School.  “They built this from scratch, they had to brain storm, they had to problem solve and they have to be able to explain it to people of all ages.”

Politicians and education experts recently have touted the need for such critical thinking skills to keep the U.S. economy strong, build a tech-savvy workforce and a science-savvy voting public.  Yet, the traditional germination grounds for these skills have dwindled amidst school budget cuts, volunteer shortages and limited time in the academic day.

Many of the 12 student teams from Chicago, Hamilton, Glenview, Naperville, Skokie and Orland Park that were manning exhibits at Fermilab said that they lacked chances to partake in the science fair right of passage or similar events. That is a national issues according to a recent New York Times article.

“This is the only place we’ll get to do this,” said Connor McCarthy, a senior at Naperville North High School. “It is great to see

Naperville Central High School students demonstrate how a laser works. Credit:Fermilab/ Cindy Arnold

the reactions of the kids, especially the smaller kids. It is great to see their faces light up when they ride it. It makes all the work worthwhile.”

The physics club McCarthy belongs to created a hover craft using plywood and a leaf blower that sent children sliding across the lobby like air-hockey pucks.

“We knew that would differentiate us from the other experiments,” he said.

 Not only did the students have to come up with a physics concept such as magnetism, force and motion and light that they could illustrate and explain to all age groups, but they also had to tap marketing magic to draw and keep a crowd of fickle preteens. The Naperville Central High School Girl Engineers Mathematicians Scientists, or GEMS, club built its experiment around lasers; Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago gave candy as prized to its static electricity race.

Fermilab Education Office Director Marge Bardeen saw teens in Spain undertaking similar exhibits at public events and brought the idea home to Fermilab.  Local schools were quick to jump at the chance.

Students from Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago use ballons and Curious George to explain static electricity. Credit: Fermilab/Cindy Arnold

“We thought it would be good for the young kids who come to the open house to have role models closer to their age and to see that through school activities they can be well on their way to becoming scientists,” said Spencer Pasero, Fermilab education office program leader.

Michelle Kwon, a fourth-grader from Glen Ellyn, said it was great to see girls explaining how lasers work because she’s heard the stereotype that girls can’t do well at math and science.  She also preferred learning science concepts from teens rather than adults.

“They explain it better,” Kwon said.

The teens themselves also found the concepts got cemented in their brains after learning how to distill the science to sound bites and elementary-school level language.

“I think I can explain it better and actually understand it better after saying it 50 times,” said Allison Von Vorstel, a senior at Carl Sandburg High School in Orland Park. 

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This story appeared in the February issue of symmetry magazine.

Timmy in front of Wilson Hall. Courtesy Todd Palino

Visitors often go bananas over Fermilab, but they rarely bring monkeys along.

Virginia resident Todd Palino had Timmy, a seven-inch-tall stuffed monkey, tucked into his camera bag when he took part in the laboratory’s first amateur photowalk. It was part of an international event that took photographers behind the scenes at five physics labs in August.

Part marketing tool and part social phenomenon, Timmy the Monkey is the creation of ThinkGeek.com and its parent company Geeknet (which also owns the popular news aggregator Slashdot). The little primate tours the world visiting famous landmarks and sharing the photo frame with celebrities such as Adam Savage, host of “Mythbusters.” Timmy has even dared to sit in Sheldon’s spot—no one’s supposed to sit there—on the couch on the set of “Big Bang Theory.”

Palino learned about the particle physics photowalks from ThinkGeek’s Twitter feed. When he told company representatives

Timmy in the antiproton source, where antimatter gets made. Courtesy Todd Palino

he had snagged a spot at the Fermilab event, they asked if he would take a Timmy monkey along. He agreed; and once there, he discovered that Illinois photographer Mike Frighetto had done the same.

Timmy at the Cockcroft-Walton, where particle beams originate. Courtesy Todd Palino

They snapped shots of Timmy sitting on a superconducting cryomodule, on a liquid nitrogen tank, near the Cockcroft Walton pre-accelerator, and in front of Fermilab’s iconic Wilson Hall.

Palino tweeted his photos, which ThinkGeek reposted.

“It was kind of like a little part of us was there,” said ThinkGeek community manager Carrie Gouldin, who runs the company’s Twitter feed. “Many of us wished we were.”

— Rhianna Wisniewski