Matter and motion


Physics Professor Emily Maher and recent graduate Darsa Donelan '09 of Adams, MA, are among the scientists from colleges and universities from around the world who are participating in the MINERvA (Main Injector Neutrino ExpeRiment v-A) neutrino experiment at Fermilab in Illinois.

Neutrinos are invisible but all around us. They interact so little with other particles that trillions of neutrinos from space pass through us every second without a trace. 

In its second year, researchers participating in this experiment seek to measure low energy neutrino interactions in support of neutrino oscillation experiments and also to study the strong dynamics of the nucleon and nucleus that affect these interactions.

Maher and Donelan were at Fermilab from May 25 to June 17.

"This is a very exciting time for the project," Maher said. "We completed a subset of the detector in March, and we put it in the neutrino beam in early April. We were able to see neutrinos interacting in our detector. This was a milestone because it was the first time we combined all the different parts of the detector and the software, and it worked!"

"Working on MINERvA with Dr. Maher has given me another chance to see physics research," Donelan said. "This time, I am able to work in the field of particle physics. At MCLA, I've enjoyed everything that I have been able to learn, especially Linux and programming. I've really enjoyed the challenge of this project."

Every institution involved with MINERvA is required to complete a certain number of shifts monitoring the detector, which houses a neutrino beam. Located 100 meters underground, the detector is controlled completely by computers.

"The detector shifts involve running the detector remotely from the 12th floor at Wilson Hall (Fermilab)," Maher explained. "While on shift, we have to monitor the detector and check the data quality."

Approximately four times a year, the entire collaboration meets face-to-face at Fermilab to discuss the progress and future of the project.

"During the collaboration, we broke up into working groups of five or so people ranging from professors to graduate students and even some undergraduates. Each group was given a particular physics analysis idea and we were charged with developing a plan to complete the analysis," said Maher.

Maher and Donelan also developed analysis code, running software to simulate the data they expect to see in the detector.

"We will study this simulated data to develop methods of choosing certain types of interactions. These interactions will be used to measure neutrino cross sections, which is the main goal of the MINERvA project," Maher said.

Although Donelan is off to graduate school this fall, Maher will continue her work with MINERvA. Next summer, another student will join her at Fermilab as MCLA continues its work on this important experiment.