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National Science Foundation funds three international physics projects

October 3, 2014

It is a good time to be a physics student at UW-River Falls after the physics department received two National Science Foundation Grants totaling nearly $600,000.

The grants are being used to fund three different projects, all of which involve UWRF students. For the next five years students will be going to McMurdo Station, a U.S Antarctic research center that is located on the coast of Antarctica.

The IceCube telescope, a highly complicated light detector, is a large reason why these grants were received. The ice in the South Pole is turned into a detector that looks for invisible neutrinos. These neutrinos are moving around in the ice and sometimes they collide into other atoms. Once a neutrino collides into an atom the neutrino disappears and turns into light. The IceCube telescope has about 5,000 sensors that are constantly tracking light.

“It’s the biggest single science project that has been built anywhere in the world,” said physics Professor Jim Madsen.

UW-Madison, as well as other UW System universities, began building the IceCube telescope in 2005.

In 2005, only one string was installed. In December of 2010, the project was completed and there were a total of 79 strings. Since then, seven more strings have been installed, making the detector bigger, so more data can be gathered.

Another goal of the IceCube telescope is to possibly prove the existence of dark matter. Physicists have long debated whether or not dark matter exists or not; with the IceCube telescope they may be able to find out.

Another project the National Science Foundation will be supporting is a 10-week summer research experience in Europe. Over the next two to three years, 18 UWRF and other UW System students will be going to Europe to study.

The third project that is being funded is another trip to Antarctica. Madsen will be going with a UW-Waukesha student who has worked with the UWRF physics department in the past. This trip is closing in. Madsen says that their trip to Antarctica will take place Nov. 12 through Dec. 6.

The National Science Foundation is a very prestigious group and the UWRF physics department went up against a lot of other programs for the same grant. Madsen believes that all of this exposure will help put UWRF on the national map.

“We get the notoriety that comes from these really competitive National Science Foundation grants,” he said.

The remaining money from the grants will be used to help support all physics students. The physics department employ students during the summer, as well as during the academic year.

This summer six students worked with the physics department; two are still currently employed and the remaining grant money will be used for future hires.

With these grants the physics department is hoping to expand the knowledge of its students as well as gain valuable data and knowledge from the IceCube telescope.