Doing research like a real scientist

19 September 2016

During this year's summer break, 24 high school students from all over Germany came to Mainz University to visit the MAMI Microtron, a particle accelerator that generates electron beams. At the invitation of the PRISMA Cluster of Excellence, they attended the first Mainz Particle Physics Academy here on the Gutenberg Campus. Professor Matthias Schott of the Institute of Physics at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) designed and organized the event bringing together top-flight research and teaching for two weeks.

The elevator descends into the bowels of the large hall of the Mainz Microtron MAMI. We are below the ground now and the particle accelerator's massive superstructures extend all the way up. Down here, in contrast, are a wooden rail, cable rolls, a mini-camera, and a few other pieces of equipment sitting inconspicuously in a corner awaiting their deployment.

"We need to run that cable. In fact, all this needs to be installed. We also need to see where we can mount the camera in order to monitor the experiment," explains doctoral candidate Andreas Düdder. "Let's split up in groups to lose as little time as possible because all this will eat into the period we have available for a radiation run."

Following CERN as a role model

A group of five focuses hard on the task they've been set. "Fixing the targets will not be easy," Düdder warns them. "I have already looked at them and they do not quite fit in the holes, so we will have to position them all on a bit of a slant." He then explains the system once again. "The beam emerges from the tube over here ..."

The research project at the Mainz Particle Physics Academy is entering its final phase. For two weeks, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) was home to the 24 high schoolers aged 15 to 18 from all over Germany participating in the program. The Precision Physics, Fundamental Interactions and Structure of Matter (PRISMA) Cluster of Excellence invited them to join the first summer academy of its kind. The idea actually came from Professor Matthias Schott of the Experimental Particle and Astroparticle Physics (ETAP) research group at the Institute of Physics.

Before coming to Mainz, Schott worked at the CERN research center in Geneva, run by the European Organization for Nuclear Research. "There we had the Win a Beamline schools competition for high school students from all over Europe. The winning team was then invited to conduct an experiment at CERN. I thought we might be able to do the same at PRISMA. After all, here in Mainz we have a quite special particle accelerator and a really outstanding research environment provided by the PRISMA Cluster of Excellence."

Other than in the CERN role model, Schott did not intend to bring whole school classes to Mainz. "We wanted to make sure we target young people witha special interest in particle physics." The professor and his team devised a complex application system demanding a letter of motivation, a reference from the applicant's physics teacher and solving a number of physics and maths problems.

High standards

"Sometimes I wondered if I was asking a bit too much," admits Schott. "But then we got 60 applications from excellent students, about half of them from girls. We were genuinely pleased by this, as the proportion of female physics students at universities is generally much smaller."

The PRISMA Cluster of Excellence agreed to fund the entire Particle Physics Academy project, including the costs associated with accommodation in a youth hostel, catering, and the extensive team of advisors and supervisors. The Mainz-based physicists are using the event to promote Mainz University as a research hub and maybe the one or the other participant is even encouraged to enroll at JGU.

The fundamental experiment of the first Mainz Particle Physics Academy focused on what is known as multiple scattering of relativistic electrons. Thus, the high schoolers' task was to find out which deviations in the flight path of elementary particles can be expected when these pass through various materials. They were responsible for designing the actual experiment, i.e., constructing their own detectors and planning the experimental sequences involving the MAMI accelerator.

While the first work group is busy in the MAMI hall, the other four groups wait in a room above ground for their turn. Each will contribute to the setup of the experiment. Clear signs of their presence have already become apparent on a large table where they have created a colorful landscape of cereal packages, bags of chips and cookies between their laptops. "Well, we need to keep body and soul together, don't we?" counters one of the group with a bright and winning smile."

Enthusiasm everywhere

The atmosphere is relaxed but everyone is focused. There is little sense of any hierarchy here, even though the professor is at the center of everything as an expert and advisor. The high schoolers have already attended quite a few lectures and practical sessions thanks to the active support of other professors and researchers at JGU. Among other things, they have attended lectures on particle physics and detectors, data analysis, and programming. Each team also developed their own experiment.

"At the end, each group presented their experiment," explains Louis Jussos. The best proposals made by the five teams were then selected, just as is the case in standard experimental practice when a particle accelerator is involved. Jussos lives in Berlin. For the 18-year-old the two weeks were "tough but manageable," he said. "We could never do anything like this at school. The lectures were good, particularly the particle physics lecture by Sam Webb. That was fantastic."

Both Dr. Samuel Webb and Andreas Düdder are members of Professor Matthias Schott's team that he was able to assemble within the ETAP research group thanks to his Lichtenberg Professorship endowment provided by the Volkswagen Foundation. They, together with a dozen other university personnel, are looking after the project participants.

"The supervision here is superb," says Tobias Raum, a 16-year-old from Bad Homburg. "Sometimes there is a bit too much information to cope with in the time available but we are always free to ask about anything." "There are no real hard and fast rules" adds Vivien Müller. She is 17 years old and comes from the Ostalbkreis district in the east of Baden-Württemberg. "We can make our own suggestions. For example, we wanted to attend a guest lecture by an eminent scientist from Princeton. The lecture was during our normal class hours but Matthias moved our schedule around and we were able to catch up on the actual learning material later on."

Competent and creative

The work day at the Particle Physics Academy starts at 9 a.m. sharp and usually ends at 6 o’clock in the evening. "Sometimes we need a little longer and that was absolutely fine," tells Jussos. "At some nights Matthias would come to the youth hostel to give a lecture on more popular science topics."

They 24 high schoolers are now in the final phase. The experiment is almost ready to go. "We are expecting deviations of less than 1 percent," says Raum. "That's right, isn't it, Matthias?" Schott refuses to ease the tension. "We'll have to wait and see."

The Physics Professor takes stock of the first Mainz Particle Physics Academy and draws a positive conclusion. "All the groups were incredibly competent and creative. Each suggested slightly different experimental setups, and all of them were good." With this in mind, Schott comes to think about dealing with something even more complex at the next academy. For the moment, however, he is not yet sure there will actually be a next academy. "We still need to sort out the financing," says Schott. "But, of course, I hope we can pull it off."

And that's also what the participants hope for. Jussos has decided that he wants to study physics in Heidelberg. "However, after everything I experienced here, I'm already a little bit envious of the people in Mainz." Müller has other plans. "I would love to register again for next year if possible." The 17-year-old is still uncertain where and what she wants to study. "I am also very interested in chemistry," she points out. So, we'll have to wait and see ...