Monday, April 02, 2012

A Cold Lesson in Particle Physics

Here at the 2012 April Meeting, we're celebrating the 100th anniversary of the discovery of cosmic rays by Victor Hess. Also, the meeting is taking place just months after the 100th anniversary of the first successful expedition to the south pole.

Nowadays, the south pole and particle physics are intimately intertwined, and one physics outreach specialist attending this meeting has demonstrated his efforts to popularize fundamental frigid research at the IceCube Neutrino Observatory.

An Aurora is seen over the South Pole scientific station. Image Credit: Christy Schulz/USAP

James Madsen, a physicist from the University of Wisconsin - River Falls, has been working on Antarctica's IceCube Neutrino Observatory for many years. While Madsen has contributed his research expertise to the project, he has also invested much of his time in IceCube's outreach projects.

At the APS meeting, Madsen described what IceCube does and why it's important for students to learn about it. IceCube consists primarily of a large number of optical detectors suspended deep within Antarctic ice and an array of sensors on the surface. With all of these sensors, scientists can detect the amount of incoming particle and their intensity.

These sensors can extend over 2,000 meters -- or almost 1.5 miles -- into the ice. The sensors detect interactions between neutrinos and the ice, and they need a lot of clear ice to be able to detect these rare events.

"We've turned that giant ice into a telescope," said Madsen.

Madsen thinks that generating interest about Antarctic particle physics research can be easy at first, but he needs a careful approach to maintain interest.

"The issue is once we get them in the door, the science is a bit complex," said Madsen.

Madsen tackles this problem with what he describes as a narrative arc. He starts with something that students can easily connect to in their curriculum and slowly builds up to the more complicated particle physics.

To aid his explanations, Madsen employs the use of an array of LED lights that mimic actual events at the detector. Varying brightness and colors on the lights illustrate particle intensities and show the original impact angle of the particles.

Sustaining an Impact

In addition to his own work on the outreach project, Madsen has been recruiting other teachers to help him spread information about IceCube. So far, Madsen has hosted several physics teachers at the South Pole for a few months, immersing the teachers in cutting edge particle physics.

When the teachers go home, they can share their experiences with their students. And even more students have gone to UW-River Falls for professional development days.

Madsen hopes that this connection with educators will inspire students to better appreciate the beauty of math and science. For more information about this outreach project or to schedule a classroom visit to UW-River Falls, check out this outreach page.

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