School students to detect cosmic rays

The Cosmic Ray Muon Research Project 2016, run by Queen Mary University of London's School of Physics and Astronomy, has been launched.

Students from five Schools* in Dulwich and Sutton have been loaned muon detectors to carry out their own explorations into the behaviour of these exotic particles. The detectors employ the same sort of technology as used in major international particle experiments such as the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory in Canada, a project that the QMUL Particle Physics Research Centre is directly involved with.

The students will have the opportunity to get a hands-on understanding of the type of signals observed by the professional experiments, and the methods used to sift out background noise in order to reveal the expected signal.

Dr Jeanne Wilson, Reader in Particle Physics in QMUL's School of Physics and Astronomy, said: "Considering how these signals and backgrounds can be probed in a desk-top setup will help students relate to the larger experiments we work on, and introduce the thought processes required to collect and analyse complex data sets."

Cosmic rays are incredibly energetic charged particles (mostly protons) which originate in our galaxy. When they hit the top of the Earth's atmosphere, they create a shower of exotic particles that include muons, the heavier, but unstable, cousins of electrons. Muons are incredibly penetrating and this, coupled with the counter-intuitive effects revealed by special relativity, means that a large number of them reach ground level.

Dr Martin Archer, Outreach Officer in QMUL's School of Physics and Astronomy, added: "The Cosmic Ray Muon Research Project is a fantastic opportunity for school students to gain experience of, and insight into, how particle physics research works. Through collaboration with QMUL, the students and teachers will develop their understanding of particle physics theory, detectors, experiment design and analysis techniques first-hand through their own independently motivated studies over the next six months."

The project is part of QMUL's Research in Schools programme which also includes two other research projects involving other schools. The students will ultimately present their work at a conference to be held at QMUL.

*The schools involved are: Dulwich College, Alleyn's School, James Allen's Girls' School, the Charter School, and Wilson's School in Sutton.