Auburn teacher to help build cosmic ray detector

Posted Jun 10, 2008 @ 12:09 AM


Auburn High physics teacher Dallas Turner is among a small group of Illinois high school teachers and students working this week at Northern Illinois University to build a cosmic ray detector.

By next summer, Turner — who coached a pair of Rockford rocketry teams to a top 50 finish in a national competition this year — hopes to bring perhaps four of the canoe-paddle-shaped detectors back to Auburn High School.

About cosmic rays
Cosmic rays are high-energy subatomic particles that bombard the Earth from anywhere beyond its atmosphere. Information from cosmic ray detectors can help scientists understand the composition of the sun and of stars across the galaxy.

Students in Auburn physics classes or a science club Turner hopes to start would become associated with a QuarkNet center run jointly by NIU and Argonne National Laboratory. Funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy, QuarkNet is a program partly aimed at infusing cutting-edge science into high schools.

“(Students) could do some real experimenting and come up with some real data,” Turner said. “My intention as a physics teacher is to get people excited about the science. That’s why I do the rocket club. I see science as so much fun because I have the background to see some things, and I am trying to give my kids that same sort of background.”

Cosmic rays are an umbrella term for high-energy particles that bombard the Earth from anywhere outside its atmosphere, according to NASA. Galactic cosmic rays flow into the solar system from far away in the galaxy, probably created when stars explode during a supernova. But other cosmic rays can be created by solar flares — explosions in the sun.

Our atmosphere shields us from the rays, but when they collide with molecules that make up the atmosphere those molecules are often pulverized. The cosmic ray detectors actually detect these subatomic particles that are the result of the collision. The particles are so small they don’t really have an effect on people or things on Earth.

But data can be collected to help scientists figure out where the cosmic rays, of which NASA says 90 percent are hydrogen protons, came from and help them learn more about the galaxy. The detectors don’t attract the particles, but collect information about them.

Most high school science programs are far behind the times, NIU science outreach coordinator Pati Sievert said.

Curriculum has changed little in the last several decades, she said, and the QuarkNet program is a way to involve high school teachers and students in new research on the structure of matter and the fundamental forces of nature.

“The real purpose is getting students involved with some 21st-century physics,” Sievert said. “What students study in high schools today is the same as they could have studied in the early 1950s. We want to get something new out there.”

Staff writer Jeff Kolkey can be reached at 815-987-1374 or at