Ida Crown Jewish Academy students and physics teacher Allen Sears presented their research findings from the solar eclipse at the American Association of Physics Teachers Winter Meetings in San Diego. Students Tamar Dallal, Masha Matten, Jacob Miller and Ezra Schur presented posters and papers on their research into cosmic ray muons during the 2017 solar eclipse. Sears also headed a panel discussion with the students about their experience.
The four students and Sears spent August 17-21 at Jefferson College, in Hillsboro, Missouri during the eclipse collecting data to measure the eclipse’s effect on cosmic rays. The college’s location was in the path of the total eclipse. The group took part in an experiment coordinated by the Quarknet group to measure any changes in cosmic ray activity during the total solar eclipse.
Student Jacob Miller says, “Everyone was very impressed that high school students were able to do this kind of research. We received extremely positive feedback, and during the panel discussion, we were excessively thanked. Many teachers used our detector plans that we created last February as a proof of concept experiment and other teachers around the country used those plans to study the eclipse.”
Beginning in February of 2017, Academy students began taking proof-of-concept data which led to the design of a telescope to detect muons from a narrow region of the sky. Sears explains, “In 2007 an opportunity arose through the Quarknet organization to attend a week-long workshop with students in which we would construct four muon counters to bring back to our school. As a physics teacher, I was looking for ways to incorporate real-world research into our physics curriculum and this seemed like an excellent way to accomplish just that. Muons are particles (like electrons, but heavier) that are streaming down from above. They result from the collision of cosmic rays with the Earth’s atmosphere. If you hold out your hand, about four muons will pass through that space every second. So, there are plenty of muons to detect! But what’s really interesting is that they only occur in high-energy collisions. Everyday matter is not made of muons. Typically we build giant particle colliders like the LHC at CERN to make exotic particles, but these cosmic ray collisions are even more energetic… and free!”
The five-day experiment in August consisted of one telescope fixed at the eclipse location, two telescopes that tracked the sun or the moon during the day, and a stack of detectors pointing directly upward to measure changes in muon counts due to atmospheric conditions. The students put together the telescopes and kept them running during the entire five days at the eclipse site.
Spending the four days in Missouri meant organizing and cooking kosher meals on a propane stove and preparing for Shabbat there as well.
Sears explains: “We detected the cosmic rays by using muon counters constructed by Academy students over 10 years ago at another Quarknet workshop. A muon is a fundamental particle that is created when a cosmic ray collides with the Earth’s atmosphere. It has all the properties of an electron, but is about 200 times more massive. Because they are traveling at nearly the speed of light, time dilation keeps them from decaying until they reach the surface of the Earth where our detectors count them. We built a telescope using these muon counters to measure muons around the region of the sky where the eclipse happened. Academy students took background and proof-of-concept measurements for months.”
In the months following the solar eclipse, the students worked on putting together a paper explaining their work with measuring muon flux rate versus various overlap schemes of muon counters. In the end, they discovered that their data did not detect a signal of a change in muons. Jacob Miller says they were surprised by the null result because they expected the moon would block muons.
Miller says, “During this entire experience, I realized all the effort that goes into scientific research. Talking to other the people and analyzing if we did have a signal or we didn’t was the most gratifying part of the experiment.”
Now that the group is back, they are working on a paper to submit to a physics journal.