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College of Science and Mathematics

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Students Challenge Laws of Physics in Italy

May 22, 2013

Contact: Tom Gutierrez

Two students in lab bunny suits
Cal Poly physics majors Sam Meijer (left) and Ivo Plamenac
clean radioactive impurities off teflon bracers at the
Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy in summer 2010.

SAN LUIS OBISPO — A Cal Poly professor and his students are trying to disprove the laws of physics. Tom Gutierrez is part of the international collaboration called the Cryogenic Underground Observatory for Rare Events (CUORE), and for five years he's taken undergraduates to the Gran Sasso National Laboratory (LNGS) in Assergi, Italy, thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation.

"One of the deepest problems in physics right now is understanding why we live in a universe that's dominated by matter," Gutierrez said, as opposed to anti-matter.

A certain type of nuclear decay — the term for particles breaking off from an atom's nucleus — might help explain the universe's preference for matter over anti-matter. But it would also contradict the current laws of physics and no one has ever seen it happen.

This is where the "rare" part comes in. Current calculations estimate that, for a given atom, this neutrinoless double-beta decay happens once in every one hundred trillion universes, an unimaginably long time. But with a lot of an element that might undergo this decay, scientists might be able to observe it, which is what CUORE is trying to do.

CUORE's experiment consists of an array of about 1000 tellerium crystals cooled down almost to absolute zero and fitted with extremely sensitive devices that measure temperature. If a specific rise in temperature occurs, it would indicate that neutrinoless double-beta decay had taken place.

An international group of over 100 physicists from institutions in the U.S., Italy, China, Scotland and the Netherlands design and maintain the experiment. Each summer, Cal Poly physics students become part of this team.

"The students get to interface with an international collaboration of scientists and work with some of the top people in the field," Gutierrez said.

The students helped build and maintain the current experiment, called CUORE-0. They helped test copper frames for the crystals and kept the liquid helium flasks full, among other jobs. Though it doesn't sound glamorous, Gutierrez said this is doing physics.

"They're involved with cutting-edge science, and they also get to see the nitty-gritty details. They get to see it's really hard work," Gutierrez said.

The students excelled in this hands-on environment, thanks to Cal Poly's Learn by Doing approach. "People were asking for our students by name because they were able to bring the skills they developed here to a real research environment," Gutierrez said.

Physics major Sam Meijer has travelled to Gran Sasso four times and worked on many aspects of the experiment, from cleaning components to improving the software for the gluing robot. He even spent some time at UC Berkeley helping to design a spectrometer that might be used in CUORE.

"I've had the advantage of working in all different areas in the collaboration. That's been a unique experience," Meijer said. "I've had my hands all over the place."

Meijer's third trip to Italy was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics.

And if CUORE detects neutrinoless double-beta decay, Meijer will be able to say he was there when the laws of physics changed. "It's really neat to be a part of something that could be historically interesting," he said.


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