The Charging Cavaliers and their teachers prepared for CERN by visiting SNOLAB in Sudbury, Ont. Photo courtesy Conseil scolaire catholique MonAvenir

Students get a big charge from physics

  • August 24, 2017

A group of Catholic students from Cambridge, Ont., hope a once-ina- lifetime opportunity to conduct an experiment at the world-famous CERN laboratory in Switzerland will help change the way scientists view the world.

The students arrive in Geneva on Sept. 19 and, over the following two weeks, will get to use a particle accelerator, the Proton Synchrotron, that is connected to the $10- billion Large Hadron Collider. It was used in 2013 to confirm the Higgs boson particle, known commonly as the God particle.

“To go to CERN, let alone to actually run an experiment there, it is such a rare opportunity,” said Dominique Morrison, one of 13 students dubbed the Charging Cavaliers from École secondaire catholique Père-René-de-Galinée. “And we are doing it before we have even graduated from university.”

To be “exploring new ground and possibly making a new discovery” is, she said, “incredible.”

The seven females and six males of the Charging Cavaliers were invited to CERN in June after becoming one of two teams selected in the lab’s Beamline for Schools physics competition that featured 180 teams from 43 countries. It’s the first time a team from the Western Hemisphere has won a coveted spot in the fouryear- old competition.

The students, who were in Grade 11 or Grade 12 when they entered the competition, had to propose a physics experiment, complete with a one-minute video, that could be tested on CERN’s accelerator beam. The students’ effort was supported by University of Alberta professor James Pinfold, who helped shape the proposal. The team was led by teacher Denis Jacques.

Theoretical physics is not a field for the uninitiated but, basically, the Charging Cavaliers proposed to use the Proton Synchrotron to search for elementary particles (particles that are smaller than an atom and therefore cannot be broken into pieces) that contain fractional charges. They’d look for these by searching for light emissions.

Physicists have suggested the existence of these particular particles for about 50 years, but no one has proved the theory. Confirming their existence would take scientists one step closer to understanding the fundamental composition of the universe.

“It is going to be mind blowing to see this 27 km (circumference) accelerator,” said Morrison, who graduated in June and will study civil engineering at the University of Waterloo in September. “I’m actually really excited to go to CERN to see this incredible structure that they’ve built over decades. Just the sheer size of that, the infrastructure that goes into these projects, it is just incredible.”

CERN is the European Organization for Nuclear Research. Its physicists study the fundamental particles of matter using the world’s most sophisticated instruments in experiments that cause particles to collide at almost the speed of light.

“Basically we are going to use the high energy of the equipment at CERN, the accelerator, to break apart those particles into smaller particles to see if we can find a charge that is less than plus one or minus one and quantify that,” said Andrew Murcos, who enters Grade 12 in September. “If successful it will prove the past theories and it will give more weight to the Standard Model and how it works, and of the particles around us.”

This is a highly technical endeavour. “We are trying to prove science that has never been seen before,” said Morrison.

But in the world of particle physics, it’s best to be cautious.

“We’re going into this expecting zero results,” said Morrison.

“(But) even if we don’t see results one of the great things about this project is that we are testing a new technology.”

The Charging Cavaliers prepared for CERN by visiting SNOLAB, Canada’s epicentre for physics research located 2 km underground in a nickel mine near Sudbury, Ont. Caitlyn Mourcos, now pursuing a French-language degree in biomedical science at the University of Ottawa, called that July visit “amazing.”

“I felt so proud to be able to experience that and to go and see first hand what Canadian scientists are doing,” said Mourcos, 18.

It’s important for Canadian scientists, young and old, to support each other, said Murcos, currently in his final year at Père-René-de- Galinée.

“When they first invited us I was very surprised but as time went on I realized that it is not so surprising because we are representing Canadian scientists (at CERN),” said the 16-year-old Grade 12. “It is important for Canadian scientists to stick together.”

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