Anatomy of a Particle Physics Experiment

Recently I returned from a particle physics experiment at the Paul Scherrer Institut, a nuclear research lab in Switzerland. I was one of ten students from the University of Heidelberg and ETH, Zürich who had two weeks of (nearly) free reign to carry out an experiment on the PSI’s proton beam line. To put into perspective how crazy that is, ordinarily the going rate for such a privilege is €10,000s per day!

Our goal was to measure a mysterious number called the “Panofsky ratio”. The ratio is named after Wolfgang Panofsky, first to attempt to measure it, and corresponds is the relative likelihood of two events involving particles called protons and pions occurring. It is important, because historically its value strongly contradicted the expectation of theoretical physicists. The two processes occur by means of two different forces — one by the weak interaction and the other by QED — and so the ratio was expected to be somewhere near the ratio of strengths of these interactions, give or take a few corrections, which happens to be around 30 Continue reading