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Fermilab | Batavia, IL | USA

View Blog | Read Bio

10 Questions for a Particle Physicist

 
 

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.

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