Seniors uncover secrets of cosmic rays

Paige Hopkins, Staff Writer

While many Liberty seniors spend their final year of high school combating the symptoms of Senioritis, seniors Trevor Sytsma, Joel Tinseth and Quinn Magendanz are focusing on something a bit more complicated: cosmic rays.

Their interest in the subject began at the end of their junior year when Honors Physics teacher Mark Buchli encouraged them to complete an independent research project their senior year, an opportunity offered to a select few Liberty students who pass Honors Physics. The students spend the whole year researching a topic of their choice, and present their findings to the faculty in May. Tinseth, Sytsma and Magendanz settled on cosmic rays after attending a Quarknet Cosmic Ray workshop at the University of Washington and learning how to study cosmic rays.

“I took this class because I wanted to try something different and really just invest myself,” Tinseth said. “It’s something that would be done at a college level typically.”

So, you may wonder, what exactly are cosmic rays? Well, when a star explodes in a supernova, it ejects a lot of particles—called cosmic rays. The three seniors are studying the hydrogen atoms that are ejected from the supernova at near the speed of light. At that speed, hydrogen atoms are stripped of their electrons and become protons. When those protons hit Earth’s atmosphere they collide with air molecules and create a shower of secondary particles. One of these particles is called a muon. By studying those particles Tinseth, Sytsma and Magendanz can learn about the original collisions—the cosmic rays.

Most of their first semester was spent setting up and calibrating the equipment, basically getting things ready to gather data. Now, the students are getting into the thick of their research.

Magendanz is studying how to block cosmic rays, which can cause electric circuits, an important part of computers, to malfunction. Since Magendanz hopes to go into computer engineering, he has been trying out various types of shields—everything from copper to electromagnetic ones—to evaluate their effectiveness in blocking the rays.

“[It’s as if] you had a bunch of people shooting someone, [and] you’re trying to put the shield in front of them to protect what’s behind it,” Magendanz said.

Right now the equipment is in Buchli’s classroom, but next Tuesday, Magendanz will move it to the roof of the school. Tinseth and Sytsma have been setting up the equipment called counters, in different configurations to investigate the effect on the amount of cosmic rays that come through.

“Recently we ran what’s called a Zenith angle experiment,” Sytsma said. “We have this apparatus, which is four stacks of counters, and we rotated them, so that we would get cosmic rays coming from different angles.”

After presenting to the Liberty staff the three will present their research to the Issaquah School Board. The other students conducting independent research projects—Signe Stroming, who is investigating the melting rates of sea ice, Christine Chappelle and Jordan Raymond, who are building a submarine that will test water quality, and Anne Wu and Jin Chen who are building an aquaponics unit—will present as well. They hope, their efforts will secure funding for next years independent research students.

“We want to leave a legacy behind, of high caliber research, and really push what a high schooler can do,” Tinseth said.