High School Seniors Encounter World Of 'Cutting-edge' Physics

November 27, 2009|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,arin.gencer@baltsun.com

They huddled around the computer in Jeremy Smith's physics classroom during study hall at Hereford High School, scanning columns and columns of numbers.

"It's delayed a minute - we have to wait," Andrew Linhard, 17, said to fellow senior Scott Forster, also 17, who was manning the mouse.

They and several classmates kept examining the screen and tried to reconcile two dizzying windows of data - which they hoped were correctly collected from a device hooked up to the computer.

"No, it's not coming out," Forster finally said.

Eventually, the columns of numbers should give the group of seniors insight into high-energy particles colliding with the atmosphere at a velocity close to the speed of light, creating a shower of particles that hit the Earth's surface - a phenomenon that can be picked up by the school's newly acquired cosmic ray detector.

About 10 of Smith's students are delving into the world of particle physics, voluntarily venturing beyond typical classroom-physics fare to study particles that might have traveled from galaxies far, far away. Once they have set up the detector to ensure it is truly documenting the occurrence of what are called "muons" - a by-product of the atmospheric collisions - the students will do various experiments to learn more about them, Smith said.

"This is the cutting edge of physics research," said Smith, who teaches Advanced Placement physics. Smith spent the past summer working at the Illinois-based Fermilab, which focuses on particle physics and trying to better understand the smallest building blocks of matter.

One of the goals of the project is to "make very student-centered lessons," Smith said, and to show students the realities of scientific research, which isn't as clear-cut as class labs. "In real life, it's a really messy process. ... This is a chance for them to see just how difficult real data collection is."

On a recent Thursday morning, the enterprising seniors working with the detector were split between two computers as they continued the calibration process. The device consists of four square paddles wrapped in black paper to keep out light and avoid skewing the data collection, said Gregory Kufera, 17, who put it together this past summer. Those are connected to pieces of PVC pipe holding an extremely sensitive light detector, which in turn are linked through wires to a circuit board that lights up whenever a signal - indicating some kind of a hit on the paddles - is detected.

The device is a "simplified" version of what scientists use for such study, said Bruce Barnett, a physics professor at the Johns Hopkins University who is involved in QuarkNet, a national program connecting high school teachers with universities and particle physicists.

"We kind of get the experience of the technology they use," said Kufera, who plans to study theoretical physics. "It provides an experimental foundation."

QuarkNet, which provided the detector to the school, seeks to update instructors on modern scientific developments so they, in turn, can teach their students about them, Barnett said.

"The hope is to sort of get the students a little bit more excited about science," Barnett said. The cosmic ray detector and associated experiments also expose them to ideas they likely "have no concept of," he said.

Hereford is one of five Maryland schools to have received detectors, Barnett said.

The complexity of what they are tackling doesn't appear to daunt the teens.

"In the future, that's pretty much what I want to go into," Linhard said, explaining what drove him to participate.

"It sounded cool," senior Stephen Cassedy, 17, added. "I figured it'd be fun to learn. ... It's very complex."

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