Controlling an atom trap at TRIUMF

Spring 2015

Claire Preston

Schulich Leader at McMaster University

Billions of neutrinos emitted from the sun pass through the earth every second undetected. These are tiny subatomic particles that are unfathomably hard to detect, being so small and light, ignoring electric and magnetic fields due to their lack of charge, and only interacting via the weak nuclear force.
For the past five months, I have been working as a coop student on the TRINAT neutral atom trap project at TRIUMF, Canada's national particle and nuclear physics laboratory, which aims to study the neutrinos emitted from beta decay of unstable atoms. The unstable atoms are trapped in a region of 1 cubic millimeter inside a vacuum chamber
(pictured) using lasers and a magnetic field, and when they decay the products can be collected by detectors and information about the particles including their presence, speeds, and directions can be found. The current stage of the project is focusing on developing the apparatus and detection equipment to provide better results in the search for new physics beyond the currently accepted Standard Model of particle physics.
Even as an undergraduate student, I have had much opportunity to contribute to and learn about this project and the related physics.
Mainly, I am aiding in replacing the old experiment control system, involving computer programming, electronics, and optics, which has been very fun and interesting, as well as useful to the group. I have also helped a lot with experimental setups for testing. This position has vastly increased my proficiency with computing and electronics and has opened my eyes to beginning to understand some of the exciting current advances in nuclear and particle physics, which are changing our fundamental understanding of how the universe operates.
I asked one of the graduate students in the group why he is choosing to do his PhD in physics. He responded that one of the reasons he is still in academia, rather than leaving sooner to work in industry, is that he likes working on things that are new. This is the same spirit I have glimpsed in many researchers, including those that I have worked with. It is something I may cheesily but not illogically coin the ‘research bug’, an inspiring passion and excitement for new science that is driving discovery in uncharted territory, and it is contagious.