UB Today Alumni Magazine Online - Spring / Summer 2004
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A Brand New Day
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Journey to ‘the Ice’

South Pole
photo: Elisa Bernardini

Antarctic winds chisel elegant snow carvings; black square flags in the distance identify the runway for planes arriving at the South Pole.

South Pole
SPIREX (South Pole InfraRed EXplorer) tower adjoins the Martin A. Pomerantz building housing AMANDA and other experiments

South Pole
Stamatikos at entrance to the “Dome,” the old South Pole Station that will be dismantled when the new station is completed in 2006

South Pole
UB flag among the flags of several nations

South Pole
Stamatikos with a portion of the electronic equipment comprising AMANDA’s nerve center

South Pole
view above the Antarctic ice sheet aboard an LC-130

South Pole
Emperor penguin at McMurdo Statio

South Pole
New power plant at the South Pole features three levels of backup redundancy and uses aviation grade diesel to convert fuel into electricity

Photos by Elisa Bernardini, Blaise Collin and Michael Stamatikos

  Journey to ‘the Ice’
South Pole proves ideal setting to view subatomic particles

By Donna Budniewski

Michael Stamatikos, intrepid UB doctoral candidate in physics, on the icy expanse of the South Pole this past November. Stamatikos was part of the ambitious AMANDA project conducted by the University of Wisconsin.

Stepping off the LC-130 Hercules airplane and onto the infinite sheet of snow and ice at the South Pole at minus 50 degrees (Fahrenheit) was breathtaking and beautiful—just sky and ice, says Michael Stamatikos—and a bit dizzying, until he acclimated to the high altitude. Stamatikos, a doctoral student in the UB Department of Physics, was at the South Pole to study subatomic particles called neutrinos, and says he was lucky to be visiting the pole during summer because of the perpetual sunlight, relatively calm winds and mild temperatures. Neutrinos are of interest to scientists because they travel through the universe, including Earth, relatively unaffected by magnetic fields, thus preserving information about their origin.

An international group of astrophysicists and researchers, including Stamatikos, believes the best hope of seeing these ghost-like particles is buried 1,500 meters under the Antarctic ice surface—a telescope constructed of 677 optical modules. These light sensors detect the faint blue light emitted when neutrinos collide with other subatomic particles. The telescope, known as the Antarctic Muon and Neutrino Detector Array (AMANDA), looks down, through the ice, to the sky in the Northern Hemisphere. The University of Wisconsin at Madison directs the AMANDA project. (More information about AMANDA is available at http://amanda.physics.wisc.edu/.)

Stamatikos, a Buffalo native, traveled to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in November, spending three weeks performing routine maintenance on AMANDA and furthering his understanding of neutrinos and their possible connection to gamma ray bursts, which he says have remained a mystery to scientists some 30 years after they were first discovered.

His journey to “the ice,” as long-term inhabitants call the South Pole, included a stop-off in New Zealand to gear up for the harsh Antarctic environment before making the eight-hour flight to McMurdo Station on the coast of Antarctica, the jumping-off point for most travelers to the pole.

What makes the South Pole an optimal locale to view neutrinos is the bulk, purity and clarity of the ice. The optical modules are sunk into the ice 1.5 to 2.5 kilometers deep via hot-water drilling. Soon these modules will cover one square kilometer of the surface of the ice through a project recently funded by the National Science Foundation, enlarging AMANDA to become a more sensitive instrument known as “IceCube.” Drilling for IceCube will begin in January 2005, with anywhere from one to four strings deployed. It is anticipated that the full complement of 80 strings and 4,800 optical sensors will be completed by 2010.

The goal of the AMANDA/IceCube experiments is to detect astrophysical or cosmological neutrinos, as opposed to atmospheric neutrinos, which are locally produced via the interaction of cosmic radiation with Earth’s atmosphere.

“We’re looking for a particle—a particle that’s almost always involved in very violent reactions, high energy, things like black holes, active galactic nuclei, supernova and gamma ray bursts,” Stamatikos affirms. “It would be very surprising if something like IceCube didn’t see astrophysical neutrinos. It would be huge news either way. It’s a cutting-edge, frontier experiment. As a scientist, you search for projects like this,” he says.

The telescope has already proven itself, Stamatikos explains, because it can detect atmospheric neutrinos at a rate of two to three per day. Scientists are combing the data obtained from AMANDA over the past several years (the telescope has been operational since 1997) to see if astrophysical neutrinos also are part of the data collected from the telescope.

“A neutrino will point directly back to its source, making neutrino astronomy possible. Neutrino astronomy literally opens up a new window on the universe since we use a particle, not photons (radiation), to ‘see’ what’s out there,” Stamatikos explains. Indeed, neutrinos are unique cosmic messengers since they seldom interact with matter and are not electrically charged and, hence, are unaffected by magnetic fields. While seeing a neutrino is difficult, as it has very little mass and interacts weakly with matter, they can be detected indirectly due to their interactions with matter.

“The caveat is that neutrinos are extremely difficult to detect. This requires a large detector volume, which increases your chances of observing a neutrino event. AMANDA’s optical modules have transformed the natural ice at the geographic South Pole into a 10-megaton scientific instrument. Occasionally, a neutrino interacts with the ice and produces a charged particle known as a muon, whose motion through the ice generates a streak of bluish light known as Cerenkov radiation that is detected by the optical modules,” he continues.

Among the unexpected pleasures Stamatikos found at the South Pole was the intense sense of community and trust among people living and working there. He also experienced the isolation inherent in being so far away from home and civilization.

“I think you’d almost have to go back to colonial days to get a sense of the isolation and the interconnected nature of everyone,” he says. Although everyone at the pole has a very specific job to do, they also pitch in and take turns doing routine chores. “There is a real sense of people helping each other.”

Stamatikos’s own research involves looking for a possible connection between gamma ray bursts (GRBs) and high-energy astrophysical neutrinos by comparing AMANDA’s observations with GRB position and timing data determined by such satellite detectors as NASA’s Compton Gamma Ray Observatory (CGRO).

“Gamma ray bursts have remained an enigma since their discovery in the early 1970s,” Stamatikos explains. “They are transient flashes of gamma ray radiation distributed randomly across the sky, located at cosmological distances. The detection of neutrinos from GRBs would help reveal part of the physical mechanisms of the progenitor event(s), thought to be either the merger of compact objects or the death of massive stars.”

Recently, strong evidence has been observed for a GRB-supernova connection. An absence of neutrinos from GRBs will help constrain models that predict them and also probe the possibility of GRBs being the source of the highest energy cosmic rays.

“I search AMANDA data for neutrino signals occurring at the same time and place as documented GRBs,” Stamatikos notes. “The expected neutrino signal is determined by computer simulation based upon the application of experimentally measured GRB parameters and theoretical models. This is the groundwork that will be extended to more sensitive instruments such as IceCube and Swift, NASA’s next generation GRB satellite detector.”

Stamatikos also has studied dark matter, another hot topic in astrophysics. As far back as he can remember—even as a young child—he loved science. His parents emigrated from Rhodes, Greece, to the United States in 1970, and he is the first member of the family to attend college.

“As I went through my education, I found out pretty early that the most fundamental field for me that has something to say about virtually everything is physics. Physics is the mother of all sciences. Anything you do can always be traced back to something physical. I’ve always had a fascination with the universe, the stars, looking up at a dark sky and wondering where everything is going, where did we come from.

“It’s a golden age in cosmology and astrophysics because now we’re really able to test some of these theories and get precision measurements, and throw out some theories or pursue the models that seem to fit the data that we’re getting,” he concludes.

Stamatikos returned to UB in April and gave a scientific talk at UB about his work on the AMANDA project and research on GRBs. He also gave a public lecture about his experiences, entitled “Ice Fishing for Neutrinos: An Antarctic Odyssey.”

Donna Budniewski is assistant editor of the UB Reporter.

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