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UD physicist Jamie Holder demonstrates the electrical signal that
can be recorded when muon particles pass through solid objects,
including student Chris Trenthams head.
nature, they can be found in rocks, bananas, the sun and even in
gamma-ray bursts, which are energetic explosions in distant galaxies.
They also can be found in man-made nuclear plants and about every
second, approximately 65 billion of themneutrinospass through your
Neutrinos are high-intensity subatomic particles that pass through
everything and interact with nothing. Despite occurring by the
trillions, they are difficult to detect, yet physicists and astronomers
regard these tiny travelers as a perfect source to study the universe
because neutrinos are known to emerge from the cosmos.
While they carry no charge and only
weakly interact with whats around them, these cosmic messengers
travel through the universe in a straight line, with speed-of-light
swiftness. They dont change direction or velocity, so once detected,
neutrinos can point the way back to their origins.
Since 2010, scientists at the IceCube South Pole Neutrino Observatory
have studied high-energy neutrinos with an extraordinary telescope
embedded in the Antarctic ice. The telescope is equipped with over 5,000
sensors suspended on 86 cables nearly two-thirds of a mile deep in the
ice. The sophisticated sensors, known as Digital Optical Modules (DOMs),
detect and record the burst of blue light created the moment neutrinos
strike other particles in the ice.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Xavienn Nobles (right) and Kathryn Certesio from Delaware Military
Academy inspect a photomultiplier tube like those used to detect and
amplify light in sophisticated sensors at the South Pole.
It doesnt happen oftenonly about 100 high-energy neutrinos have
been detected in the last 10 yearsbut depending on the direction and
intensity of the flair, scientists can infer whether the neutrino
traveled from outside our solar system.
Nearly 30 students from five area high schools got a taste of the
groundbreaking research in the field of neutrino astronomy during the IceCube Masterclass
held on the University of Delawares Newark campus, Wednesday, April
11. Now in its fifth year, the project is a joint effort of the
University of Wisconsin, UD and several other national and global
Participants in the IceCube
Masterclass heard from postdoctoral researcher Dennis Soldin, who
coordinated the event, physicist Jamie Holder, electronics instrument
specialist James Roth and several UD students about ongoing UD research
at IceCube and life at the South Pole. Hands-on activities included
analyzing actual IceCube data and identifying the trajectory of
neutrinos that have been detected as they passed through the ice in a
Kathryn Certesio, a senior at Delaware Military Academy (DMA), was
astonished by how many neutrinos actually exist, the precision with
which scientists are able to measure them and how the research actually
The fact that scientists can find these big events in all of that
data is surprising, Certesio said. Other students, including fellow DMA
senior Elise Buonopane, were excited about the opportunity to ask
questions you cant get answers to by reading a textbook or searching
During a discussion on cosmic rays, physicist Jamie Holder
demonstrated how scientists detect particles known as muons, which occur
in particle showers and produce light when struck by other materials in
the atmosphere. This light can be detected by photomultiplier tubes
(PMTs) like those in the IceCube DOMs and recorded as an electric signal
that scientists can use to understand cosmic rays.
The IceCube Laboratory at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station,
in Antarctica, hosts the computers that collect raw data from the
The IceCube observatory detects over 250 million muons every day in
its quest for elusive neutrinos, but muons occur in everyday places like
Delaware, too, Holder said. The students watched as he showed the
electrical signal created when muons passed through two rudimentary
boxes containing the photomultiplier tubes, then how the same signals
could be recorded as the muons traveled through the boxes and other
solid objects, such as DMA senior Chris Trenthams head.
Tim Myers, a teacher at Perryville High School in Perryville,
Maryland, said he purposely brought sophomore students this year who
havent yet made decisions about what college to attend.
I wanted to expose them to the University of Delawares Physics
Department and the complex research thats available to individuals who
study science, Myers said. It helps them look into the future to see
life beyond high school.
Rory Walsh, a senior from Newark High, said he had no idea about the
conditions at the South Pole before hearing James Roth speak. Roth,
senior supervisor of the electronics shop for the
Universitys Department of Physics and Astronomy, has been to the South
Pole 14 times over the last 16 years, working alongside researchers from
institutions worldwide on the IceCube project, which is supported
through the National Science Foundation and coordinated by the
University of Wisconsin.
Roth shared how UD researchers and engineers had a hand in developing
and constructing the massive telescopes surface array of detectors,
known as IceTop, that cap the IceCube observatory in Antarctica. He
also described the difficulties of even getting to, and working in,
remote locations in the polar regions. It takes more than 30 hours to
travel the 12,000 or so miles from Delaware to the outpost, he said, not
to mention the harsh environmental conditions and the challenges of
living long stretches of time confined in close quarters with 150
researchers, engineering and IT folk.
Collecting the data, Roth continued, is easyits making sense of the
data that is hard. Only four percent of our universe is made up of
regular matter like atoms and molecules. The other 96 percent is stuff
that even highly educated scientists barely understand, such as dark
matter and dark energy. Neutrinos, though, are an important piece of the
puzzle, one scientists hope will help unlock new clues about the
universe and what lies beyond.
Until that happens, however, helping high school students learn about
the far-flung research they might pursue in physics, astronomy or other
scientific fields remains central to the IceCube Masterclass mission.
Its also a key reason that high school teachers give up valuable class
time to bring students to UD and other campuses.
Making that connection for students that have an interest is
important, said Jamy Haughey, a physics teacher at Sanford School.
Students participants at the UD MasterClass represented the following
high schools in DelawareNewark High, Sanford School, Caravel Academy
and Delaware Military Academyand Perryville High School in Maryland. An
additional 17 institutions hosted similar Masterclass events in March
in Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and several U.S. locations in
Alabama, Florida, Michigan, New York, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin.
by Karen Roberts; photos of master class by Kathy F. Atkinson; IceCube
photo by Erik Beiser, National Science Foundation