The students, calling themselves the ‘Charging Cavaliers,’ were chosen from 180 applications across 43 countries.
By Scott Wheeler
June 13, 2017
A group of Cambridge, Ont., students are charged up after winning the chance to test their nuclear physics experiment in Switzerland.
Père-René-de-Galinée high school’s “Charging Cavaliers” will visit CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, with their co-winners from Italy.
The two sets of students will visit the nuclear research organization’s Geneva headquarters in September to test CERN’s high-tech accelerator beam.
The group of 13 students won the Beamline for Schools competition after 180 teams — from 43 countries — submitted applications.
They will search for elemental particles with fractional charges by observing their light emission — current understanding of particles is incapable of measuring electrons and protons in fractions.
“We thought it was very innovative. It’s a fun proposal,” said Charlotte Warakaulle, the nuclear research organization’s director of international relations.
“We don’t know whether they will actually be able to prove what they’re setting out to prove but we like when people have ambition and they have ambition,” she added. “They’re really taking on the big theories and trying to put them to the test and we love that level of ambition, the way that they’re trying to tackle the big questions in physics.”
The Charging Cavaliers are the first North American group to win the Beamline for Schools competition since its inception four years ago on CERN’s 60th anniversary. Previous winners hailed from Italy, United Kingdom, South Africa, Netherlands, Greece and Poland.
If the group’s experiment is successful, it could be groundbreaking, according to Dr. James Pinfold, an internationally renowned particle physicist.
Pinfold, 65, served as the group’s advisor throughout the application process and worked at CERN with George McKarris, the father of one of the students. He credits the students for their energy and judgment.
“I presented a few ideas to them and they chose this one because they’re excited by the possibility of discovery and the possibility of getting involved in fundamental research,” said Pinfold. “It’s blue sky stuff but what’s exciting about it is it’s asking fundamental questions, it’s very well based in the theory and there’s a possibility of course that some discovery may be made and if a discovery was made it would be a monumental discovery.”
There are currently 175 Canadians scientists working on experiments at CERN. Pinfold hopes the students’ trip to Geneva will inspire them to continue their nuclear physics research.
“I think that’s one of the great challenges of big science is to involve the public and also the youngest possible students at the earliest age to make the greatest impact in the excitement and the importance of curiosity-driven basic research,” he said.
Grade 12 student Paul McKarris, who moved from Switzerland to Canada to pursue an application to the University of Waterloo, led the group after learning about Beamline for Schools while interning at CERN. Still, despite his early experience in the field, McKarris was shocked when he found out they’d won.
“No one believed that we won,” he said. “It’s going to be huge for me. Physics (has been) my life since I was a kid, I love physics. It’s a very big opportunity for me to run an experiment with a team and it’s very big for Canada too because we’re the first team out of North America who won.”
McKarris tried to get female students involved because he believes women are underrepresented in the physics community. The Charging Cavaliers are composed of six boys and seven girls.
Beyond working with some of the top physicists in the world, Pinfold also hopes to arrange for the students to build a detector, like the one they’ll work on at CERN, in Geneva.
Jacques Denis, the students’ teacher at Père-René-de-Galinée, says he hasn’t seen anything quite like these students.
“I’ve been teaching for almost 20 years now and the fun part about being a teacher is being around kids that are really focused and when the heart and the smarts and the gut and perseverance comes together you can do a lot of things and this is just an example,” he said.
“We encourage them to come up with cutting edge proposals that go through the same scientific checks that other proposals do, which is really inspiring for them and it’s not just something we do just do it. It’s really to give them that sense of scientific curiosity and for them to understand scientific method,” added Warakaulle.
For their win, Père-René-de-Galinée high school will also receive a Cosmic-Pi detector, which allows for detection of cosmic-ray particles coming from outer space.
Together, Denis thinks his 13 students can make a difference.
“When you believe, when you work together, when you persevere, anything can happen. They’ll become important leaders for our community. I have a very remarkable group of students with me,” he said.