Guest Post: Michelangelo D'Agostino on Particle Physics Fieldwork in Antarctica

By Sean Carroll | February 19, 2008 3:14 pm

Michelangelo is a grad student at Berkeley who had the fun opportunity to write a diary for the Economist that will continue through this week about his adventures doing particle physics in Antarctica. I would say more, but he does a pretty good job himself!


First off, I’d like to thank Sean for giving me the chance to write this guest post. It’s not every day (in fact, this would be the first time) that I get to write something for a blog that I both read and enormously respect. This is an especially great opportunity since the scions of CV are graciously allowing me to do a bit of shameless self-promotion for a five-part journal, being published this week, that I got to write for the website of the Economist magazine.

Maybe I should back up and introduce myself. I’m currently a fifth year physics PhD student at UC Berkeley. My research is on the IceCube project, a neutrino physics experiment located at the South Pole. Basically, we’re building the world’s largest particle detector out of the polar icecap itself. Using hot water, we melt holes 2,500 m down into the ice and install very sensitive light detectors. This allows us to study the particle debris that results from collisions of high-energy neutrinos in the ice. Ultimately, we’re hoping to learn about the basic physics of neutrinos as well about the properties of some of the violent astrophysical objects that might produce them and send them hurtling through the universe towards our detector.

This means that I do what many physicists do. I sit in front of a computer, writing code and analyzing data. I do calculations and simulations. I drink coffee and talk and argue with colleagues. But it also means that I get to do something only a smaller subset of astrophysicists and physicists get to do. I get to travel to a really exotic location to do fieldwork.

monplane.jpg I think this is an aspect of being a physicist that sometimes gets overlooked. It’s true that astronomers have always gone to mountaintops to build the best telescopes, and particle physicists have always traveled to underground accelerator facilities. However, fanning out to other locations to take advantage of particular natural features is something that has become increasingly important as we build bigger, deeper detectors to try to understand weak signals and/or rare and exotic phenomena. In recent years, physicists have been traveling to the vast Argentinean plains to understand the origins of the highest energy cosmic rays, particles that are constantly bombarding Earth. Folks who study the CMB and other long-wavelength radiation have been heading up to the high-altitude Atacama Desert (here, here, and here) and to the South Pole to take advantage of their thin, dry atmospheres. Selection and planning has been moving forward for a deep underground facility for doing basic neutrino and dark matter physics.

All this means that graduate students for years to come will have the exciting opportunity to go out into the field to do their work. While the research itself is exciting, traveling to these exotic locations brings us in contact with scientists from other fields doing all sorts of other great science. For those of us who get to go to Antarctica, we meet people on the cutting edge of climate and atmospheric research. For those working underground, they may encounter earth scientists or researchers study life in extreme environments. All of which make for rich and stimulating conversations and experiences.

This brings me back to the shameless self-promotion. When the Economist opportunity came up to share some of my experiences traveling, living, and doing research at the South Pole, I jumped at it. I’ve tried to squeeze in as much basic climate science and physics as I could, so if you’re interested, check it out here

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Guest Post, Science
  • ask

    Pouring hot water into the ice cap? Nice work! As if global warming was not enough! 😛

  • K

    “Using hot water, we melt holes 2,500 km down into the ice and install very sensitive light detectors.”

    I guess it is 2500meters. Exciting work..Nice post!

  • Sean

    Oops — I fixed the units there.

  • John Ramsden

    Wouldn’t it be easier to use a very large water deposit that already exists under the ice, namely Lake Vostok, Russkies permitting (as it is apparently directly under their Antarctic base) and if at some 10,000′ down it isn’t too deep for your drills?

    Your gear would need thorough sterilization first though, or else you’d risk introducing microbes into the lake and thereby hamper or ruin the chances of biologists who might wish to study bacteria which may have bred there since the ice froze over it originally.

  • Michelangelo

    Hey John. Using a large water deposit to do the same thing is not a bad idea. There are European groups (ANTARES, NEMO, NESTOR…) who are using the clear water of certain parts of the Mediterranean to build similar large volume neutrino telescopes. There are advantages and disadvantages to both techniques–ease of deployment, optical properties of the medium, noise, bio-fouling, etc. Certainly the quality of life in the south of France is slightly better than at the South Pole though…

    Using Lake Vostok wouldn’t be much of a help. As a target, its volume of water is the same as an equivalent block of ice. Plus, you’d still have to drill down with hot water to deploy your instruments. And then, as you say, you’d be contaminating a Lake which is still, at the moment at least, a pristine target for astrobiologists.

  • Lab Lemming

    Do you guys look at geoneutrinos as well, to determine the K/U/Th ratios of the antarctic crust?

  • MedallionOfFerret

    Experimental work on dark matter? Sounds like another great post somebody knowledgeable could put together.

  • Michelangelo

    We’re not really sensitive to geoneutrinos, unfortunately. They’re way below our energy threshold. Even the smaller, much more densely instrumented detectors like KAMLand, which have seen geoneutrinos, had to do quite a bit of work to extract such a low energy signal.

  • Cynthia


    Reading this story of yours makes me wanna join your South Pole team — despite the fact that I’m a total wimp when it comes to the cold… But I believe I’ll have little (if any) trouble tolerating the cold IceCube, so long as your travel writing is there to keep me warm!;~)

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    Science had an article on ICECUBE about a year ago. As I remember the whole thing is basically a large Cherenkov detector. I suppose the melted glacier water is very pure and a good medium to put detectors in.

    I have to admit that it is too bad that the idea place is not in the Bahamas.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • correction


    They’re not melting the ice to get liquid water, they’re just doing it to get a hole to lower a string of detectors into (they lay these out on a grid). The un-melted ice acts as the scintillator. It’s a really cool project, although staggeringly expensive (I was told that the diesel fuel necessary to make one of their holes takes more than one LC-130 flight from McMurdo).


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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