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CERN grants beam time to students

Contest winners will study special relativity and an Egyptian pyramid using a CERN beamline.

Two groups of high school teams have beat out nearly 150 others from around the world to secure a highly prized opportunity: the chance to do a science project—at CERN.

After sorting through a pool of teams that represented more than a thousand students from 37 countries, today CERN announced the winners of its third Beamline for Schools competition. The two teams, “Pyramid Hunters” from Poland and “Relatively Special” from the United Kingdom, will travel to Geneva in September to put their experiments to the test.

“We honestly couldn’t be more thrilled to have been given this opportunity,” said Henry Broomfield, a student on the “Relatively Special” team, in an email. “The prospect of winning always seemed like something that would only occur in a parallel universe, so at first we didn’t believe it.”

“Relatively Special” consists of 17 students from Colchester Royal Grammar School in the United Kingdom. Nine of the students will travel to CERN for the competition. They plan to test the Lorentz factor, an input used in calculations related to Einstein’s theory of special relativity.

According to the theory, the faster an object moves, the higher its apparent mass will be and the slower its time will pass relative to our own. This concept, known as time dilation, is most noticeable at speeds approaching the speed of light and is the reason GPS satellites have to adjust their clocks to match the time on Earth. At CERN, “Relatively Special” will measure the decay of pions, particles containing a quark and an antiquark, to see if the particles moving closer to the speed of light decay at the slower rate predicted by time dilation.

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The other team, “Pyramid Hunters,” is a group of seven students from Liceum Ogólnokształcące im. Marsz. St. Małachowskiego in Poland. These students plan to use particle physics to strengthen the archeological knowledge of the Pyramid of Khafre, one of the largest and most iconic of the Egyptian pyramids.

The pyramid was mapped in the 1960s using muon tomography, a technique similar to X-ray scanning that uses heavy particles called muons to generate images of a target. “Pyramid Hunters” will attempt to improve the understanding of that early data by firing muons into limestone, the material that was used to build the pyramids. They will observe the rate at which the muons are absorbed. The absorption rate can tell researchers about the thickness of the material they scanned.

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The Beamline for Schools competition began two years ago, coinciding with CERN’s 60th anniversary. Its purpose was to give students the opportunity to run an experiment on a CERN beamline in the same way its regular researchers do. For the competition, students submitted written proposals for their projects, as well as creative one-minute videos to explain their goals for their projects and the experience in general.

A CERN committee selected the students based on “creativity, motivation, feasibility and scientific method,” according to a press release. CERN recognized the projects of nearly 30 other teams, rewarding them with certificates, t-shirts and pocket-size cosmic ray detectors for their schools.

“I am impressed with the level of interest within high schools all over Europe and beyond, as well as with the quality of the proposals,” Claude Vallee, the chairperson of the CERN committee that chose the winning teams, said in a press release.

The previous winning teams hailed from the Netherlands, Italy, Greece and South Africa. Some of their projects have included examining the weak force and testing calorimeters and particle detectors made from different materials.

“I can't imagine better way of learning physics than doing research in the largest particle physics laboratory in the world,” said Kamil Szymczak, a student on the “Pyramid Hunters” team, in a press release. “I still can't believe it.”