High Energy Physicists as World Travelers

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Josh Albert, a fourth-year graduate student at Duke, recently returned from another trip to a high energy physics experiment in Japan. "The travel is fascinating," Albert says. "Not just from a physics perspective but also because I'm able to meet people with such different perspectives." High energy physics experiments are massive endeavors, requiring teams of hundreds or thousands of physicists from dozens of countries. Graduate students and undergrads at Duke are active participants in these international endeavors.

Albert specializes in neutrino physics.  The neutrino experiments he works on are both in Japan: the Tokai-to-Kamioka (T2K) experiment based at the Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex in Tokai, and the Super Kamiokande (Super-K) experiment at the Kamioka Mine near Toyama.  Collaborating physicists travel to meetings at the experiments two or three times a year. They also have to take turns going on shifts at the experiments, which require 24-hour monitoring.

Albert's first shift as a collaborator was in October 2009 at Super-K, which is a neutrino detector consisting of an enormous cylindrical tank 3,300 feet underground that holds 50,000 tons of water.  Eleven thousand phototubes are mounted around the walls of the cylinder. "When charged particles travel above a certain speed through the water in Super-K, they produce light," Albert explains.  "This light is then picked up by the phototubes, and used to calculate information about the interacting particles."

Albert’s graduate research has included detector calibration for Super-K and calculating expected experimental sensitivites for T2K.  These sensitivity plots have since been made official by the collaboration group at T2K and now serve as a resource for physicists around the world, who will use the plots when presenting research on the T2K experiment.

The neutrino experiments produce incredible amounts of data, which is good for students, Albert says. "There are 10 atmospheric neutrinos events a day at Super K. There are three muons a second.  This is a lot of data to analyze and it's great for undergrads and grads because we need good analyses to complete our PhDs,” Albert says. “Many different aspects of physics can be looked at with the data of these experiments, so students are able to look into many topics and do analyses that are both interesting and challenging.”

When in Japan, Albert stays at the U.S. Group apartment or at laboratory dormitories.  Whenever he can, he takes time to enjoy the sights of Japan, immerse himself in local culture, and take part in the international community involved in the experiments.  "I see the many of the same people every time I go," Albert says, "so I've made friends from many places."  After nine trips to Japan in less than two years, Albert is comfortable in the country.  When asked how his Japanese is after so many trips, Albert replies "It's much better than it used to be!"

See more photos from Albert's trip to Japan on Flickr here.