A particle accelerator is a term that gets thrown around a fair amount in physics; many of you have probably heard of such a thing but what do we physicists do with them? What is their purpose? Well, Maria Mazza and I (Sam Wilensky) are working with Dr. Stephenson. The three of us are working on experiments at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (NSCL) up in Michigan State University (Go Spartans!) and we are learning about just how we can manage to get these particles to relativistic speeds (pictured above) and the data we can obtain from doing these types of experiments.
The physicists at the NSCL are looking at the structure of the nucleus in order to gain a better understanding of the nuclear force. But how do we do that? Well, we take Magnesium 32 nuclei and smash them into a Beryllium 9 target. But it isn’t quite that simple. First we need to make sure that we have a beam of Magnesium 32 nuclei and only Magnesium 32 nuclei and this is done through several magnets, which manage to separate the contaminants of the beam. Once the beam has been cleared of contaminants we send it to the Beryllium target. If only it were that simple for us to observe! Unfortunately, the amount of time it takes for the Magnesium nuclei to pass through the target is on the order of 10-11 seconds, which even our best detectors could not quite measure. So what we do is we look at the fragments that come out of the target-beam collisions. Through a series of detectors we are able to obtain data, which can give us the momentum and energy of the fragments. This data can tell us what kind of fragments we have. The end goal of obtaining this information is backtracking the path of these fragments to the Beryllium target and seeing how the Magnesium nuclei broke apart after colliding with the Beryllium target.
Maria and I are working on applying corrections to the data and calibrating the data in such a way that we are able to discern the momentum and energy. This will allow us to identify the particles we have hitting the detectors after the collision. Maria and I spend the majority of our time in the student lounge of Masters Hall in front of computers, working on macros (computer codes) and applying them to the data. This week, however, we found ourselves away from Masters Hall up in the home of the Spartans (MSU), at the NSCL. Being on site gives us a better picture of what it takes to obtain this kind of data and run these types of experiments. This week we are working hands on with the neutron detectors and arranging them for the next experiment the NSCL collaboration to run this fall.