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.
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…