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Fermilab | Batavia, IL | USA

View Blog | Read Bio

Bob’s most excellent particle-detector adventure, part 2

Bob Peterson continues to travel with his QuarkNet  particle detector around the edge of Africa recording remnants of cosmic rays. This offers a chance to study how cosmic ray recordings differ on land and sea and at different latitudes. The data will be accessible to high school students and teachers in several countries who use similar detectors to learn about particle physics.

 
His first post explains why he’s taking his science to the seas and how getting a detector on a boat sounds easier than it is.

–April 20: Breakfast at 0730 and you better be on time. The galley crew frowns on late comers and they clear the tables whether you are done or not. Other scientists have boarded in preparation of our departure. There is a group of atmospheric chemists studying particles that nucleate clouds. They had a gigantic shipping container lifted aboard last night, and spent the night setting up. They look a bit bedraggled. Soon, I will be too. I want to get the detector on the air before we depart. But, still, the cosmic ray muon detector sits on the cargo deck and I can’t carry it up seven flights of stairs.

Cosmic ray muon detector aboard ship. Credit: Fermilab

–April 20, 1200: It’s noon and finally the cosmic ray muon detector (in a box) is sitting in front of the ship’s weather office. My contact, Michael Walter, from the high-energy physics laboratory DESY/Zeuthen in Germany,  does outreach with students using cosmic ray detectors and is a collaborator on IceCube. He  previously installed his own detector. My detector will live directly above. By having two detectors of the same type we can double check data and also have a backup for when one of the detectors malfunction, which has happened at times on previous trips. The afternoon will be busy: assemble, plateau, capture data, record data.

–April 20, 1950: Didn’t quite make collecting data. The cosmic ray muon detector is alive and healthy and all counters plateaued. That means that the detector has hit the sweet spot where the photo multiplier tubes are recording the optimal amount of photons. Below that spot we would be missing valuable data and above it the data would get muddy. While all this is great, I lack a computer to record data. I need drivers installed to talk to the data acquisition system, and the computer I’m using doesn’t have drivers. No driver; no data recorded. I must have the data. I will work on this problem
tomorrow.
Right now, the pilot has arrived to shepherd the R/V Polarstern out of Cape Town and underway. I will hide in the dark corners of the bridge and stay out from under foot.

— April 20, 2001: Much is going on. The gangway has been taken in, the springs are loosed and weare headed north and west. The pilot departs with the briefest of words. It’s dark and the Southern Cross constellation  is rising in the east; Orion is settling in the west. We clear the breakwater at 2020, and, oh my, what a westerly swell. The weather officer warned me: Be ready. I am not, and my stomach rolls over. It’s been 30 years since I have felt such a thing, and I’m as green as the wreaths of Christmas. It’s going to be an unpleasant night. Quickly I retire to my bunk.

–April 21AM: The Polarstern is a big ship, but it is getting pushed around by 6-to 8-meter swells. After all we are near the roaring forties winds and the dominate westerlies. The weather guys have quickly become my friends as they point out that this will pass soon enough as we enter the southeast trade winds.
But, I can’t wait. I have to get that cosmic ray muon detector data recorded no matter my condition. If you need friends, look to your weathermen, named Klaus and Max, and your systems administrator, named Felix. Installing the driver has proven problematic for the available Ubuntu machine. Felix enters with a brand new Mac: “Can you use this?” Within minutes, I have data sliding neatly into the open file, and now I can relax. Back to my bunk where I will spend the afternoon.

–April 21 PM: Klaus was right. Slowly the swell subsided and so did my constitution. I managed to attend dinner and felt better. Not great; just better. More good news: the cosmic ray muon detector is behaving.

— April 23: I’m managing many things now. I’ve figured out the meal schedule. I’ve learned who to go to with questions: Klaus and Max and Felix are always willing but steer clear of the cargo mate. He’d just as soon bite your head off. I’m always welcome on the bridge and Philipp is good at providing details. I know much of this, though I’m a bit rusty. It’s all coming back. And still the cosmic ray muon detector data flows. Good thing.

— April 23 PM: The crew relaxes with a movie and the bar is open. Everyone settles into the routine. Tomorrow is Easter. I will have to think about how to worship. I suspect I’ll be all alone about it.

— Bob Peterson

 

Related information:

You can follow the journey at:
http://expedition.awi.de

You can e-mail Bob questions at rpeterson.p@awi-polarstern.de. Please send only text, no images.

Glossary

*Galley: A ship’s kitchen.

*Bridge: The elevated, enclosed platform on a ship from which the captain
and officers direct operations.

*Springs: Dock lines

*Breakwater: A barrier built out into a body of water to protect a coast or
harbor from the force of waves.

*Swell: A slow, regular movement of the sea in rolling
waves that do not break.

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