Physics in Italy

During April 2013, Keith and Mayisha traveled to L’Aquila and Gran Sasso, Italy, for the 2013 Low Radioactivity Techniques conference. Keith, a senior computer science major, and Mayisha, a sophomore majoring in physics and biology, have been conducting research with Assistant Professor Jodi Cooley in the Department of Physics in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. The students presented their research at the poster session of the conference.

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Presenting physics research in Italy’s mountains

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Professor Cooley and three other physicists walking back to the hotel from the conference with an inspiring view of the Apennine Mountains.

p8The 2013 Low Radioactivity Techniques conference was held at the Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso, which is about an hour and a half northeast of Rome. The conference center is an above-ground facility in the middle of the beautiful snowcapped Apennine Mountains, where the air is fresh and our allergies start behaving. Eighty-five physicists from 13 countries around the world gathered at this conference to discuss experiments that require low radioactivity environments. Examples of such experiments include those dedicated to neutrino studies and dark matter searches.

At the conference, we were able to learn more about the physics behind various experiments, including our own. We were pushed to understand components of experiments we were not familiar with: the designs of different detectors for neutrino studies and dark matter searches, scintillators, and distinguishing background noise from the decay of uranium and radon. We were also able to meet with researchers from different universities, some of whom we have been working with all along, but never met in person. The conference gave us a view of physics research around the world and various experiments including SuperCDMS.

A typical day of the conference would begin with a warm cup of Italian espresso and freshly baked chocolate croissants at the hotel. Physicists from three different hotels would then load onto the bus, which took us to the conference center. We watched Professor Cooley and Professor Loach (our collaborator on the Community Assays Database from Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China) give talks during the plenary sessions about background considerations for the SuperCDMS dark matter experiment and the Community Assay Database, and we absorbed as much of the information from the other talks as we could.

During coffee breaks, Professor Cooley would introduce us to various physicists and we got to participate in discussions and ask questions about low radioactivity physics. After the talks and poster sessions, we would head back to the hotel and meet for six-course dinners as one large family of physicists. At night, the stars would shine brightly over the mountains, making it a perfect time to sit outside and finish Dr. Scalise’s Classical Mechanics homework.

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Keith with his research on the Community Material Assays Database

The Poster Session

For the poster session, Keith presented the development of the Community Material Assays Database by Professors Cooley and Loach, and SMU undergraduates Ben, Matthew and himself.

The database contains information on measurements of the radioactivity of various materials and will be used as a repository for future measurements and a reference for physicists around the world.

Mayisha presented initial studies using the XIA alpha particle counter housed in a clean room at SMU.

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Mayisha with her studies using the XIA alpha particle counter

The instrument is one of five such existing instruments in the world. It counts alpha particle emissions from various samples that are given off by radioactive decay, and can be used to screen materials for purity before they are used in the construction of dark matter detectors. The counter is also used to study various techniques for removing radon daughter particles from the surfaces of materials that scientists are considering for use in the next generation of dark matter experiments.

We talked to several conference attendees one-on-one and answered several questions. We felt honored to be working on research work that was significant enough to bring us to share our work and ideas.

Tour of Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso

On day three, we journeyed inside a mountain through tunnels 1,400 meters underground, and saw numerous experiments that are currently active in the largest underground laboratory in the world. These experiments are housed underground in order to shield them from cosmic rays that would be a source of background noise, which could interfere with the study. The goal for these low experiments is to detect particles that rarely interact with ordinary matter such as neutrinos, and dark matter candidates.

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Touring the world’s largest underground laboratory

One of these experiments is the OPERA experiment. This experiment consists of layers of lead and emulsion that are used to identify tau neutrinos that have transformed from a beam of muon neutrinos sent all the way from CERN in Switzerland. The OPERA experiment made the news two years ago for finding neutrinos that appeared to travel faster than the speed of light, but the actual cause was a loose optical fiber cable. It was exhilarating to see these cables in person, since Professor Cooley explained the phenomenon in her introductory mechanics class.

Another experiment, ICARUS, has the same goal of studying neutrinos changing from one type of neutrino to another. However, ICARUS uses liquid argon instead of lead and emulsion and works similarly to a bubble chamber. As an undergraduate, it was amazing to see the colossal experiments we’ve learned about in class and during the conference.

One Day to Roam Around Rome with Romans

After the conference, we had one last dinner with our newly expanded family of physicists Professor Schnee (Syracuse University) and Professor Cushman (University of Minnesota) whom we met at the conference.

P6We also had one day to discover Rome by foot ourselves. We managed to cover old Rome, the Roman Coliseum, and the Pantheon on a slow “pilgrimage” toward the Vatican to visit St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican museum, and the Sistine Chapel. Apart from the works of Michelangelo and Raphael, there was a solid marble woman sculpted so that its texture made it appear that she was sweating and her clothes were sticking to her. It was such delicate detail in such a lifeless material, it made us wonder how the artist managed to achieve such an effect.

On the way back to the city center, we went by the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain. We discovered the divine pleasure that is pistachio gelato and Italian green olives. One of our favorite things to do is probably walk into churches while people are singing and listening to the Italian music.

Grateful for the opportunity

This conference was by far the most significant event of our undergraduate careers. It is unlikely we will come across such an opportunity like the LRT conference again.

Preparing for the conference challenged us to really master and question what we know about our research. Professor Cooley, Dr. Silvia Scorza, Hang Qiu, and Bedile Kara drilled us on questions we may be asked so that once we were in Italy we could speak with confidence and accuracy. Overall, we believe we made a good impression at the conference and left as better scientists with more knowledge than when we came. In return, we left our own small contributions to the vast physics world.

We are extremely grateful to the Hamilton Undergraduate Research Program and the Assays and Acquisition of Radiopure Materials (AARM) Collaboration for providing funds to make this trip possible.

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