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David Schmitz | Fermilab | USA

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meeting with student tour groups

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting with a group of 8th graders from a local middle school.  They were visiting the lab on a field trip and, as is custom for tours, arrangements were made near the end of their visit to meet with an employee from the lab – this time me.   I do this once or twice a month and many other people at the lab participate as well, as there are many tour groups that visit Fermilab.

It’s not a presentation, but rather a Question & Answer session, so it requires no preparation on my part other than to be in the right room at the right time.  The free form of these sessions, I think, is what makes it so much fun for me.  This week I was asked everything from how long I had to go to school to do my job here (that one always gets their attention!) to whether the protons and antiprotons make any sound when they collide at such high energy.  I mean, that’s a really great question!  I usually have to be coerced by the tour docents to stop taking questions 10 minutes past the allotted time.  I think they remind me a little why I ultimately wanted to become a scientist in the first place – there are so many great questions out there to be answered – and I always come away from these sessions feeling refreshed and enthusiastic.  That’s a pretty remarkable result from a 30 minute session squeezed into a packed schedule between lunch and some afternoon meeting.  I only hope the students get a fraction of what I do out of our brief discussions.

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A favorite pastime

Monday, April 27th, 2009

I’m not much of a winter person.  I like to visit winter on occasion, but don’t really appreciate when it drops in on me.  So when spring finally starts to come to the Chicago area, I get pretty excited.  Further, today is my birthday.  (That’s right, folks, the photo below is the last one of 31-year-old Dave.  The same photo taken today would show me all gray and hunched over and cupping my ear in order to hear you better.)  I, at least, can think of no better way to spend one of the first warm days of the year and my birthday weekend than a little bit of America’s Pastime – a Chicago White Sox baseball game.

View from the seats.

View from the seats in the White Sox Park.

I grew up on baseball.  My grandfather (mom’s dad) was a life-long St. Louis Cardinals fan.  In fact, he even tried out for the organization as a young man, but later injured his arm – he was a pitcher.  My own father was apparently a bit of a force on the mound in high school as a tall, thin left-hander.  So I got into the game very young – playing it, watching it, and talking about it with several generations of my family.  Following in these foot prints, I too was a pitcher for many years as a teenager.  In my own high school days I was lucky enough to be part of a State Championship team my junior year.  I mentioned in my bio that I was a few semesters from spending my life as an architect.  Well, the first thing I ever wanted to be, I guess, was a baseball player.

Anyway, the thunderstorms which blanketed Chicago this past weekend seemed to respect the game as well and paused for exactly 4 hours to let it proceed.  The remnants of the morning storms had to be wiped off your seat before the game, the sun came out in the 1st inning and it was 80 degrees by the 4th, and it started to rain again while walking back to the train after the 9th.  Not bad.

So Spring is trying, and I appreciate her efforts, and look forward to the summer that is to come.

Zooming in a bit.

Zooming in a bit.

A younger me at the game!

A younger me at the game!

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A string of great seminars

Friday, April 17th, 2009

One great thing about the academic environment and being at a university or major laboratory like Fermilab is the regular series of lectures and seminars that such places host.  Top people from a variety of fields are constantly coming through to talk about their work and share their experiences. Fermilab, for example, has a colloquium every Wednesday at 4:00, which can be on essentially any topic, a general research seminar on Fridays at 4:00, several more focused seminars each week, and special one-time presentations get scheduled regularly.  The people who organize all of these series really do an incredible job of maintaining a schedule of interesting talks.

Working at a place like Fermilab, however, it is very easy to begin to take these opportunities for granted.  How is it I am always in the middle of something sooooo important at 4:00PM every Wednesday and Friday?  Well, the answer is that I am always too busy, so one must just make the decision to make the time.  At least twice a week, often more, I am a 15 second elevator ride from learning something new and exciting from an expert in their field and I try very hard not to miss the opportunity.

Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman giving a Heilborn Lecture at Northwestern University this week.

Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman giving a Heilborn Lecture at Northwestern University this week.

This week serves as a notable example of these opportunities, and I am thankful I didn’t think I was “too busy” to attend.  On Wednesday I ventured up to the campus of Northwestern University where Leon Lederman was giving a series of Heilborn Lectures hosted by the Physics and Astronomy Department.  Prof. Lederman is a true icon in the field and a treat to hear speak.  He has a great sense of humor and seems to know an incredible number of jokes from memory!

One of Prof. Lederman's hand written slides showing the parity concept for muon decay.

One of Prof. Lederman's hand written slides showing the parity concept for muon decay.

Perhaps the best part were his hand written slides.  In physics, like many fields I imagine, one of our most finely tuned skills these days is in the use of Power Point. I care not to think of the number of hours I spend each week with a Power Point session open.  Prof. Lederman’s lecture told the tale (both personal and technical) of how he and a few colleagues once showed that parity is not conserved in the weak interaction (a VERY major discovery in physics) in about 36 hours from idea to data analysis.  36 hours!  The idea for the LHC probably came 20 years ago and they haven’t collected any data yet.   His slides really added to the personal form of the tale.  This happened back in 1957, by the way – I wonder when he first wrote out these slides.

Architect, James Carpenter, showing us their 'Light Pipe' design in between two 14 story buildings in Wshington D.C.

Architect, James Carpenter, showing us their 'Light Pipe' design in between two 14 story buildings in Washington D.C.

The next lecture this week was at Fermilab given by, of all people, an architect. The lab’s Deputy Director, Young-Kee Kim, invited James Carpenter from James Carpenter Design Associates Inc. to present his talk entitled “Constructing the Ephemeral” where he took us on a tour through images of buildings his firm has designed all over the world. In each design they made use of light and glass in interesting, creative new ways. In the photo to the left Mr. Carpenter is standing in front of an image of their ‘Light Pipe’ design. It is situated in a narrow space between two 14 story buildings in Washington D.C. A heliostat, a mirrored plane which tracks the sun across the sky, is mounted on the roof of one of the buildings and reflects light into the top of the 150 ft. tall cylinder lined with reflective prism shaped glass strips resulting in an incredible amount of light being ‘piped’ into this narrow, dark space.

The speaker, Patrick Huber, just before beginning his Extreme Beam Lecture on "NOvA and Beyond".

The speaker, Patrick Huber, just before beginning his Extreme Beam Lecture on "NOvA and Beyond".

Finally, yesterday was the third in a series of lectures here at Fermilab called ‘Extreme Beam’. Each lecture focuses on the physics that we could do at Fermilab with the construction of a new very high intensity proton beam facility – the extreme beam. Such intense beams are very challenging particle accelerator technical challenges, but allow the ability to search for very, very rare processes in particle physics – one pathway to new physics beyond the current Standard Model.  The intensity of your proton beam is also directly related to the intensity of the neutrino beam that you can create, so yeaterday’s talk by Patrick Huber focused on the physics you can probe with such an intense neutrino source here at Fermilab and enormous neutrino detectors built half-way across the country in South Dakota!

So, it’s been a good week for lectures here at the Laboratory.  But the truth is, its more the norm than the exception, so these will keep me showing up for a while until I forget and get “too busy” again.

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MINERvA sees its first neutrinos!

Friday, April 3rd, 2009

It has been an exhilirating (if exhausting) week for the MINERvA experiment.

I described in my first post how we had constructed a portion of our detector in a building on the surface here at Fermilab, and were now beginning the process of disassembling it to move it deep underground to sit in the path of the high intensity neutrino beam being created here at the laboratory.  That painstaking process has already borne its first fruit.

Dozens of people have been working long hours every day over the last week to get to this point.  Starting early each morning, a skilled mechanical crew carefully transports by truck each 2,000 lb. slice of the detector from its old location to the neutrino hall access point.  The module is then hoisted with an industrial crane and slowly lowered down the 300 ft’ access shaft (quite a thrill to look down from above the next time you are at Fermilab – just be sure your glasses don’t slide off your nose!).  Another crew receives the steel frame at the bottom and carefully maneuvers it through the tunnel to hang it alongside those that came before.  The detector is slowly built up like slices of bread make up a loaf.

Me showing off the required underground fashion accessory (hard hat) and capturing a moment of our detector in construction.  The cherry picker is used to hoist the crew above the detector to install the electronics (the blue cylinders sticking out of the top).

Me showing off the required underground fashion accessory (hard hat) and capturing a moment of our detector in construction. The cherry picker is used to hoist the crew above the detector to install the electronics (the blue cylinders sticking out of the top).

Looking back the other way, a new module is being carefully brought in to hang with the others.

Looking back the other way, a new module is being carefully brought in to hang with the others.

For every four new slices, the next crew, made up of collaborating students and post-docs like myself, comes in and works the ‘second shift’ from about 2:00-10:00PM.  We mount all the electronic instrumentation and carefully route hundreds of cables and optical fibers down to the racks below where a computer system awaits to read the signals from 1,000’s of electronics channels.

Okay, great, but how do we know when we see something coming from the neutrino beam?  Conveniently, the neutrinos are produced in quick bursts instead of continuously.  Trillions of neutrinos pass though the detector over a very short period of about 10 microseconds (10 millionths of a second), and this happens every 2 seconds.  Therefore we expect to see a large increase in activity in our detector during this brief 10 millionths of a second relative to the rest of each 2 second period.  Wednesday night a few hardy physicists stayed late into the night determined to record the data we were looking for – to see neutrinos with our detector for the first time.

I was at home that evening because my parents are in town to visit and arrived Wednesday afternoon.  I was sitting at home talking with my mother when the email came in around 10:30PM that the data had been taken.  I, consumed with excitement, apologized to my mother, and logged in to work (she has known me for a very long time, and so wasn’t exactly surprised 🙂 ).

A few hours later, about 1:00AM when I finally sorted out the details and made this plot:

Activity in our detector over a brief time period showing the huge spike in activity corresponding to the arrival of the neutrino beam.

Activity in our detector over a brief time period showing the huge spike in activity corresponding to the arrival of the neutrino beam.

I let out a little yell!! – and even my mother, looking over my shoulder at the time and encouraging me to “get my rest”, realized that such a striking spike must mean something.  The narrow spike is the activity in the MINERvA detector during that brief 10 millionths of a second – the clear signature of hundreds of particles, invisible to our eyes and created by neutrinos, flying through the slices of our loaf of bread.

I immediately sent the plot out to the collaboration – about a hundred dedicated scientists and engineers working for the past several years to build this device.  There is a lot of challenging work ahead to decode the wealth of information contained in the signals from our new experiment.  But we have incontrovertible proof that the darn thing works, and that has a lot of us really excited.

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Greetings from Fermilab

Friday, March 27th, 2009

Hi everyone, and welcome to my new blog on Quantum Diaries!  As with many things, getting started feels like the hardest part as there are so many things to write about and one is never sure where to begin.

It seems blogs are everywhere these days. Google has a search tab dedicated to finding blogs and will uncover one on just about any subject you can imagine.  I personally read several blogs maintained by close friends who are off on an adventure of some sort in the world.   This is my first venture into the world of blogging as author.

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The assembled MINERvA prototype detector on the surface at Fermilab. The hanging paddles act as a "trigger" signaling when invisible cosmic rays are passing trough the detector.

My goal is to share about my experiences as a neutrino physicist working at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, IL. The main content will, therefore, be about current research efforts in high energy particle physics – what are some of the open questions and what experiments are being done to search for answers?  Hopefully it will give the Reader a sense of what it is like to do this type of research.  I’m sure there will be posts along the way that don’t really touch on physics as well since, like anyone, I have a variety of interests beyond my work.

It’s actually a very exciting time for the experiment which I am currently working on, called MINERvA (as in the Roman goddess).  MINERvA is a new experiment at the lab designed to study how neutrinos interact with other matter better than any experiment to come before.  Since I started last summer, the detector has gone from a lot of parts and a good plan to something that can actually see fundamental particles completely invisible to our eyes.   The past few months have involved much hard work by many people on what we call “commissioning” the new detector – essentially doing very detailed studies of its performance to be sure it is working like we expected.

A cosmic ray muon passing through the MINERvA detector as seen in the reconstructed data from our electronics.

A cosmic ray muon passing through the MINERvA detector as seen in the reconstructed data from our electronics.

We do this by taking advantage of something nature provides us for free – cosmic rays. Particles from outer space interacting in the amosphere produce energetic charged particles which are bombarding the surface constantly, including our detector – how convienent!  One type of cosmic ray is the muon (the big sister of the electron) and they look very distinctive in our detector.  The center part of the detector shown in the picture above has regions made of a plastic where light is produced when a charged muon passes through.  The electronic instruments on the top of the detector can “see” this light and read it out very quickly.  When we assemble (very carefully!) the signals from all of the electronics channels (there are 64 on each circuit board you can see, so 6784 all together) we can see very clearly the “invisible” muon passing through, as in the event display on the left.  We recorded many thousands of muon events like this over several weeks to test our new detector.

Satisfied with this testing, we are now disassembling the entire thing (after all that hard work?) to move it into the path of the extremely intense neutrino beam created here at Fermilab, called NuMI.  The trick is that the beam path is in a large cavern 300 ft underground, so it must be moved in pieces so it can be carefully lowered down a long shaft and reassembled underground.  I will be working long shifts underground on Monday and Tuesday of next week operating the computers and electronics of the detector and basically commissioning it all over again.  I’ll be sure to post new pictures next week.  And with any luck, by the middle of the week we will see the first evidence of a neutrino interacting within our detector!!  Hmmmm, maybe after the weekend I’ll even explain why in the world someone would want to this 🙂  But for now I have to get going because, if you read my bio, then you know that my defending national champion alma mater is playing in the NCAA sweet sixteen in an hour and a half – Go ‘Hawks!

The underground cavern at Fermilab looking back in the direction of the neutrino source.

The underground cavern at Fermilab looking back in the direction of the neutrino source.

The heavy steel frame patiently waiting the hanging of the MINERvA detector very soon!

The heavy steel frame patiently waiting the hanging of the MINERvA detector very soon!

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