From Syracuse University: “NSF and Department of Energy Grants Enable Physicists to Continue Cutting-Edge Research in Neutrino Discovery”

From Syracuse University

9.18.22
Dan Bernardi

You may not know it, but every second 100 billion extremely tiny, invisible subatomic particles called neutrinos pass through every square centimeter of your hand.

Physicist Mitch Soderberg says the reason you didn’t notice is because they rarely interact with matter, so most of those neutrinos moving through your palm, and the entire Earth, come and go without a trace before zooming back off into the universe.

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A&S physicists Mitch Soderberg, left, and Denver Whittington have been awarded grants from the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy to fund their neutrino research.

Neutrinos are produced by nuclear reactions and radioactive decay from sources all around us, including the sun, the atmosphere, nuclear reactors and particle accelerators.

“We know neutrinos and their antimatter versions, antineutrinos, would have been around in the early universe, and we want to know if subtle differences in the way they interact could have led to matter coming to be dominant over antimatter in the universe,” says Soderberg, professor and associate chair of physics in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S).

Nearly 14 billion years ago a tiny, dense, fiery region of space expanded and cooled to become the universe we know today, an event known as the Big Bang. The Big Bang should have created equal amounts of matter and antimatter, which are particles identical in almost every way except for their electrical charge. If that happened, the particles of matter and antimatter would have annihilated one another resulting in a universe containing nothing but leftover energy. Instead, a tiny portion of matter—about one particle per billion—managed to survive.

Understanding how neutrinos—one of the most fundamental, abundant and lightest subatomic particles with mass—interact may be the key to determining why our universe exists. By studying those interactions, Syracuse researchers hope to understand the answers to really big questions, such as why all of the “stuff” in the universe, including stars, planets and people, are made out of matter and not antimatter.

Enhancing Neutrino Detection

In collaboration with physicists around the world, Soderberg and members of his research group have played a key role in historic neutrino discoveries, including a groundbreaking study last year confirming no sign of a theorized fourth kind of neutrino (the Standard Model states there are three kinds of neutrinos—no more, no less).

Now, Soderberg will serve as principal investigator along with physics Professor Denver Whittington on two new grants: one from the National Science Foundation and another from the Department of Energy (DOE) to study neutrinos and enhance future detection technology. Their DOE grant is part of the federal government’s $78 million investment funding 58 research projects that will spur new discoveries in high energy physics.

Physicists analyze neutrinos using detectors such as MicroBooNE, a 170-ton experiment at the DOE’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois.

These detectors use cutting-edge technology to record 3D images of neutrino events. Inside Liquid Argon Time Projection Chambers (LArTPC), liquid argon serves as both the neutrinos’ target and the medium that transports the picture of the interaction to custom sensors and electronics that record the data.

“You get beautiful images of the aftermath of a neutrino smacking into an argon atom, which we use as the basis to reconstruct all the details of the interaction and learn about the properties of the instigating neutrino,” Soderberg says.

The support from the NSF and DOE will allow Soderberg and Whittington’s group members to collaborate on neutrino experiments at Fermilab, which is one of the few places on Earth where a focused beam of neutrinos can be created and aimed at a detector.

A group of researchers from Syracuse University are currently at Fermilab working directly on experiments with another team on the Syracuse University campus performing analysis and laboratory work.

Whittington, whose neutrino research is also supported by an NSF CAREER award, will use this round of NSF funding for his ongoing work with an experiment called “NOvA.”

That project, which includes more than 260 scientists and engineers from 49 institutions in eight countries, is working to capture precision measurements on the behavior of neutrinos by sending a neutrino beam from Fermilab to a location in Minnesota.

“NOvA has already made world-leading measurements and is poised to make the first inroads into neutrino mysteries such as the fundamental differences between neutrinos and antineutrinos, which the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE) will ultimately investigate with next-generation precision,” says Whittington.

The research and development from these grants will play a crucial role in the DUNE project, which is expected to feature multiple LArTPCs each the size of the Physics Building, says Soderberg.

The flagship international experiment hosted by Fermilab already has more than 1,000 researchers, including physicists from Syracuse University. DUNE will be located 1 mile underground in a former gold mine in South Dakota right in the path of a neutrino beam originating from Fermilab in Illinois.

By sending neutrinos from Fermilab 800 miles (1,300 km) through the earth to detectors at the mile-deep Sanford Underground Research Facility, researchers will be able to make definitive determinations of neutrino properties, giving researchers insights into the workings of these fundamental particles.

According to Whittington, the funding will support their investigation of DUNE’s sensitivity to astrophysical neutrino sources like core-collapse supernovae, which are violent explosions that result from the rapid collapse of a star at the end of its life, giving birth to neutron stars and black holes.

“Should one occur in our half of the galaxy while the detectors are operating, collecting data on neutrinos from such an event would shed light onto the processes happening during neutron star and black hole formation,” says Whittington.

Sparking Student Discovery

Through the educational component of these grants, graduate and undergraduate students will work on everything from detector construction and operation at Fermilab and Syracuse, to the final data analysis and software development.

“Neutrino experiments at Fermilab tend to operate 24/7 for years at a time, and our group members will take turns with collaborators from around the globe in monitoring the experiments, which nowadays we can do here at Syracuse even if the experiment is in Chicago,” says Soderberg. The team will also create an exhibition about particle physics to be displayed at the Museum of Science and Technology in downtown Syracuse.

In addition, the coming year will also usher in a new era of discovery at Syracuse University, as campus will now be home to a prototype “pixel” LArTPC detector, developed by colleagues at The DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Bern. Faculty and students will use the sophisticated detector to study cosmic rays, which like neutrinos, constantly pass through Earth going largely unnoticed.

While harmless to humans or any other life on the planet, researchers have been unable to locate the source of these mysterious atom fragments that constantly rain down on the planet.

Students interested in engaging in hands-on, international research and exploring the secrets of neutrinos can learn more by visiting the Experimental Neutrino Physics group website.

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Syracuse University is a private research university in Syracuse, New York. Established in 1870 with roots in the Methodist Episcopal Church, the university has been nonsectarian since 1920. Located in the city’s University Hill neighborhood, east and southeast of downtown Syracuse, the large campus features an eclectic mix of architecture, ranging from nineteenth-century Romanesque Revival to contemporary buildings.

Syracuse University is organized into 13 schools and colleges, with nationally recognized programs in architecture, public administration, journalism and communications, business administration, information studies, inclusive education, sport management, engineering, law, and the arts. The university is classified among “R1: Doctoral Universities – Very high research activity”. Alumni and affiliates include three Nobel Prize laureates, one Fields Medalist, 36 Olympic Medalists, 13 Pulitzer Prize recipients, numerous Academy Award winners, two Rhodes Scholars, four Marshall Scholars, the 46th president of the United States Joe Biden, and various governors and members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

Syracuse University athletic teams, known as the Orange, participate in 20 intercollegiate sports. Syracuse University is a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, for all NCAA Division I athletics, except for the men’s rowing and women’s ice hockey teams. Syracuse University is also a member of the Eastern College Athletic Conference.

After World War II, Syracuse University transformed into a major research institution. Enrollment increased in the four years after the war due to the G.I. Bill, which paid tuition, room, board, and a small allowance for veterans returning from World War II. In 1946, the University admitted 9,464 freshmen, nearly four times greater than the previous incoming class. Branch campuses were established in Endicott, New York, and Utica, New York, which became Binghamton University-SUNY and Utica College [now Utica University] respectively.

The velocity with which the University sped through its change into a major research institution was astounding. By the end of the 1950s, Syracuse ranked twelfth nationally in terms of the amount of its sponsored research, and it had over four hundred professors and graduate students engaging in that investigation.

From the early 1950s through the 1960s, Syracuse University added programs and staff that continued the transformation of the school into a research university. In 1954, Arthur Phillips was recruited from The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and started the first pathogen-free animal research laboratory. The lab focused on studying medical problems using animal models. The School of Social Work, which eventually merged into the College of Human Ecology, was founded in 1956. Syracuse’s College of Engineering also founded the nation’s second-oldest computer engineering and bioengineering programs. In 1962, Samuel Irving Newhouse Sr. donated $15 million to begin construction of a school of communications, eventually known as the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. In 1966, Syracuse University was admitted to the Association of American Universities, an organization of leading research universities devoted to maintaining a robust system of academic research and education.

Rankings and reputation

In its 2021 ranking of U.S. colleges, U.S. News & World Report ranked Syracuse tied for 58th among undergraduate national universities. A 2019 survey in the Academic Ranking of World Universities places Syracuse University in the top 100 world universities in social sciences. In 2019, Syracuse University was ranked 22nd in New York State by average professor salaries. Syracuse was ranked 1st in The Princeton Review’s 2015 and 2019 list of top party schools.[149][150] Syracuse University was named as one of top Fulbright Award producing institutions for 2020-21.

The School of Architecture Bachelor of Architecture program was ranked 5th nationally in both the most Hired from and most admired categories by the journal Design Intelligence in its 2019-20 rankings.

The S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications is one of the university’s most notable schools. Ranked as one of the top schools in the country for journalism, it provides the school’s most visible alumni. The school has around 2,000 undergraduates and is considered one of the most selective on campus.

The School of Information Studies offers information management and technology courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels at Syracuse University. Within the School of Information Studies, U.S. News & World Report has ranked the graduate program as the 6th best Library and Information Studies graduate school in the United States for 2022, with the graduate program in School Library Media ranked 3rd, the graduate program in Digital Librarianship ranked 4th, and the graduate Information Systems program tied at No. 5.

The School of Management was renamed the Martin J. Whitman School of Management in 2003, in honor of Syracuse alumnus and benefactor Martin J. Whitman. The school is home to about 2,000 undergraduate and graduate students. The graduate program is ranked tied at No. 84 among business schools nationwide by U.S. News & World Report for 2022. Also, the Joseph I. Lubin School of Accounting was named No. 10 in the nation by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The College of Law is ranked tied for 102nd nationally by U.S. News & World Report for 2022. It is an emerging leader in the relatively novel field of National Security Law. In 2007, the law school started the Cold Case Justice Initiative, investigating cold cases from the civil rights era in the South. Its professors and students have identified 196 cases, of which more than 100 are in Georgia, and will give information to the US Department of Justice to have cases prosecuted. The FBI has identified 122 cold cases that it is trying to resolve. President Joe Biden is a graduate of the College of Law.

The Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs combines social sciences with public administration and international relations. It is ranked as the No. 1 graduate school for public affairs in the U.S. by U.S. News & World Report for 2022.

Military Times ranks Syracuse University the top “Private School for Vets” and 5th overall in the “Best for Vets” in 2020. Syracuse University is ranked tied for 30th in “Best Colleges for Veterans” by U.S. News & World Report for 2022. To position Syracuse University as the center of veteran life on the school’s campus, in the local community, across Central New York and the nation’s hub of research and programming connected to the veteran and military sectors, the school completed the $63 million state-of-the-art National Veterans Resource Center (NVRC) in 2020, the first-of-its kind facility in the United States.

The graduate program of the College of Visual and Performing Art (VPA) is considered one of the top 50 programs in the US. VPA ranked No. 14 in multimedia/visual communications, a specialty that includes disciplines found in the college’s Department of Transmedia, which offers M.F.A. programs in art photography, art video, computer art, and film. VPA also ranked No. 16 in ceramics, No. 19 in printmaking, and No. 20 in sculpture, which are M.F.A. programs based in the Department of Art. Project Advance (or SUPA) is a nationally recognized concurrent enrollment program honored by the American Association for Higher Education, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the National Commission on Excellence in Education, and the National Institute of Education.

Civil liberties organization FIRE gave Syracuse its 2021 “Lifetime Censorship Award”, “[f]or its unashamed assault on expressive freedoms”.

Research

Syracuse University is classified among “R1: Doctoral Universities – Very High Research Activity”. According to the National Science Foundation, Syracuse University spent $154.3 million on research and development in FY 2019, ranking it 136th in the nation. Through the university’s Office of Research, which promotes research, technology transfer, and scholarship, and its Office of Sponsored Programs, which assists faculty in seeking and obtaining external research support, Syracuse University supports research in the fields of management and business, sciences, engineering, education, information studies, energy, environment, communications, computer science, public and international affairs, and other specialized areas. Syracuse became a member of the Association of American Universities in 1966, an organization of leading research universities devoted to maintaining a strong system of research and education. In 2011, however, the university’s board of trustees voted to pull out of the research consortium due to dispute over the counting of non-Federal research dollars.

Syracuse University has established 29 research centers and institutes that focuses research, often across disciplines, in a variety of areas. The Burton Blatt Institute advances research in economic and social issues for individuals with disabilities, and it has international projects in the field. The Martin J Whitman School of Management supports the largest number of research centers, including The Ballentine Investment Institute, the George E. Bennett Center for Accounting and Tax Research, the Robert H. Brethen Operations Management Institute, Michael J. Falcone Center for Entrepreneurship, The H. H. Franklin Center for Supply Chain Management, Olivia and Walter Kiebach Center for International Business Studies, and the Earl V. Snyder Innovation Management Program. In 2010, the university launched SURFACE, an online, open-access institutional repository for research, which is run by the Syracuse University Library System.

Other research programs include The Syracuse Biomaterials Institute, the Alan K. Campbell Public Affairs Institute through the Maxwell School, and the Center for the Study of Popular Television through the Newhouse School of Public Communications.

Syracuse University also has collaborations with The European Organization for Nuclear Research [La Organización Europea para la Investigación Nuclear][Organization européenne pour la recherche nucléaire] [Europäische Organization für Kernforschung](CH)[CERN] and The DOE’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, among other institutes. Syracuse also has a comparatively large number of collaborators on the LIGO Scientific project and is actively involved with the search for gravitational waves.

In June 2022, Syracuse University announced the launch of the Center for Democracy, Journalism and Citizenship, a collaborative initiative between the Newhouse School and Maxwell School, in Washington D.C. The center aims to address the loss of trust in journalism and democracy, political polarization, and the deterioration of civil discourse. It will host prominent speakers at public events, sponsor scholarly and applied research, and provide students with an opportunity to spend a semester in Washington D.C.

Syracuse University Press

Syracuse University Press is a university press that is part of Syracuse University. The areas of focus for the Press include Middle East studies, Native American studies, peace and conflict resolution, Irish studies and Jewish studies, New York State, television and popular culture, sports and entertainment. The Press was founded on August 2, 1943, by Chancellor William Pearson Tolley and benefactor Thomas J. Watson. It is a member of the Association of American University Presses.