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Fermilab | Batavia, IL | USA

View Blog | Read Bio

A QuarkNet particle detector sets sail for IceCube

Bob Peterson has agreed to forfeit a month of his time and his non-sea-loving stomach, for a briefer period, in the name of science.

Bob Peterson

This Fermilab employee and QuarkNet instructor will shepherd a cosmic ray muon detector through rolling ocean waves around the edge of Africa to gather data to help the world’s largest frozen particle detector, the IceCube neutrino observatory at the South Pole. The detector is the same type as those built and used by high school students in cosmic ray study projects, including QuarkNet program, which allows students throughout the world to collect and share particle physics data. QuarkNet gives students a chance to interact with physicists and get a taste of what it would be like to work on a global experiment such as IceCube.

IceCube serves as a neutrino telescope peering at neutrino particles that cascade out of collisions of high-energy cosmic rays with the Earth’s atmosphere. The trick is that IceCube only wants to look at these cosmic neutrino remnants coming from a certain direction, from the opposite hemisphere and through the Earth, not those falling directly overhead of the detector.

The data Peterson collects will help IceTop, a smaller detector set a top IceCube, to give the most precise data to the IceCube collaboration so that it knows it is focusing on the right particles. His data will be combined with data collected on a similar trip last year in Antarctica by a group of Wisconsin college physics students. This combined data will tell researchers the varying intensity levels of cosmic ray remnants as you travel from the equator to the poles. This will help the IceTop collaboration calibrate its detector to compare data to IceCube and help IceCube reject background particles from downward cosmic ray remnants that can obscure the detectors’ views of neutrinos moving upward through the Earth.

Sketch of the IceCube detector. Each cross on the surface represents two IceTop tanks. Credit: IceTop Collaboration

Studying neutrinos in one of the coldest places on Earth will help scientists get a better picture of where high-energy neutrinos originate and how they contribute to the universe’s most violent events, exploding stars called supernovaes. These explosions spit out the heavy elements necessary for the creation of life on Earth. Without these neutrino-fed explosions the universe would look very, very different.

And so Peterson, an avid sailor, who gets sea sick for the first few days of every journey, packed up his gear and headed out to learn about the universe and its most distant, violent objects by riding on a boat.

He is blogging his adventures in science and seafaring here at Quantum Diaries. A glossary of sailing terms will appear at the bottom of each post to aid readers.

23 Apr 2011, R/V Polarstern
Lat: 24-50.5S
Long: 9-42.7E
somewhere off the Namibia coast
Heading: 320degT
Speed: 12 knots

Bob’s Blog begins wherein Bob is on a voyage aboard a German research vessel to the Southern Hemisphere and discovering that using the Internet aboard a ship isn’t that simple.

–April 18: I had a really nice blog written yesterday, but the mail server timed out, and poof. No more. Then I found out from others that, oh yes, that happened to them, too. Well, I won’t do that again.

–April 19 AM: I arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, late Monday night after a 26-hour flight. The trip took me through Dulles Airport and then through Dakar across the Atlantic. I recommend South Africa Airlines; they are good with comfort and food. But still, there I was standing in CPT wondering who was picking me up. After a few nervous minutes, the driver for the ships’ agent, Randal, found me contemplating my next move. Ah, now I’m in good hands as we visit the immigration office where there is much stamping of documents.

I was somewhat foggy after such a long trip. Finding my ship proved not so simple because another ship on the quay was bunkering at the time of my arrival. But I finally made my way down the narrow quay to the gangway and the R/V Polarstern. My question, “Permission to board?” was met with a blank stare, and by then Randal was long gone so retreating was not an option. Just when I thought I would have to take my chances on the neighboring rust bucket (the one that was bunkering), the 2nd Mate, Philipp Gumtow, appeared welcoming me aboard; he took charge of the situation. Soon, I was surveying my cabin and eyeing a nice bunk.

–April 19: My wake-up alarm came from a departing tanker from the next quay over (not from the rust bucket). The traditional departure signal is one long blast, and they care not who is sleeping. Fine, I’m awake. Time for breakfast. Where’s the galley? I find it, and there I meet Philipp again. He tells me, “No, this table is reserved for crew; you sit over there at the science table”.  Ah, the world on the Polarstern is segregated: crew, officers, scientists. I think I fall somewhere in between. A ship is like a summer camp. It is all about procedures and everyone must abide or chaos ensues. The trick is find a friendly party that will explain those procedures before I step over the unseen boundaries. Tina was just that person. She is a biology grad student studying the effect of ocean warming on pelagic fish.

Then I try a quick tour of the ship, but within three turns of a corner I’m completely turned around. The Polarstern has seven decks connected by a central stairs and many doors with inscrutable labels all written in German. This is my handicap. Still, my exploration starts from my cabin to the galley and back and expands from there.

–April 19 AM: The Cape Town harbor sits at the bottom of the continent where 5,000-foot mountains loom. It shelters many ships bound for ports to the West, but not the East because of the threat of pirates. Cape Town traffic has increased as cargo is off loaded to rail and truck to avoid the east side of Africa, and likewise cargo is received for the journey west.

There are big ships here: tankers, container ships, general cargo, oil rigs, crew boats for the rigs and rust buckets. There are some tied to a remote pier called the graveyard. They will soon become target practice or cut up for scrap. One ship stands out; so I go ashore for pictures. With its many derricks and lots of deck plumbing, I want to get a closer look at the Peace in Africa. No kidding, that’s the name. Immediately a shore officer wants to confiscate my camera. “No way,” I say. Then I notice the owner: DeBeers. This ship mines the ocean bottom for diamonds; think Howard Hughes and magnesium nodules. Peace in Africa my foot. I beat a hasty retreat back to the safety of the Polarstern.

QuarkNet detector taken on ship. Credit: Fermilab

— April 19 AM: All the while, I’m wondering: Where is my cosmic ray muon detector? I ask Sonja who is the agent handling all the Polarstern logistics, whether she has seen it. She says that she will check and let me know.

— April 19 PM: Whoops, my first surprise. The money onboard is the euro……. I knew that, but they require cash. Now I’m in trouble; my credit card will do me no good. I must come up with cash; Sonja offers help and a driver to a downtown bank. But, this quickly goes bust as the banks refuse to exchange dollars for euros especially for someone on a ship. You must have an account and a permanent address. Hmmmm, I think they’ve been burned before? What to do?

–April 19 PM: Sonja has found my box. It’s in Cape Town. Closer, but still not onboard.

–April 19 PM: All ships use an agent for logistics and paper work. The Polarstern uses Meihizen International. They are skilled at problem solving, including my cash shortage problem, and they gladly offer help. First, I will retrieve South African rands from an ATM; then the agent will go to his bank for euros because he has permanent-resident status. My money goes from credit card dollars to rands to euros and I can feel a slice out of my funds at every step.

Still, the snafu gave me a tour of Cape Town and a genial meeting with the president of the agent company. He’s a sailor; I’m a sailor. We get along famously; I’m invited back for a cruise on his yacht. Nice yacht.

–April 19, much later PM: The day is getting late, and I learn we will depart at exactly 2000 (8 p.m.) on Wednesday with or without my cosmic ray muon detector. Sonja says the box is now at the agent’s office. It’s closer and will be delivered late afternoon. Sure enough, I see it come out of the delivery truck and get hoisted via the ship’s crane (I think: Please don’t drop it boys) to the receiving deck.

But, still I can’t have it. I am told that the cargo mate must verify the box on his manifest list. The officer will release it tomorrow morning.


*quay: pronounced “key”.  A concrete, stone, or metal platform lying
alongside or projecting into water for loading and unloading ships. Similar to a

*bunkering: fueling a ship.

*galley: kitchen

*manifest: A document giving comprehensive details of a ship, its cargo
and other contents, passengers,and crew for the use of customs officers.

— Bob Peterson


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