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Particle physics, served with a slice of Cosmic Pi

Speed read
  • Cosmic-ray detectors are nothing new, but are prohibitively large and expensive for schools and colleges.
  • A team of researchers is now working to produce a cheap kit for students aged 14-18 to build their own open-source cosmic-ray detectors.
  • Their first design was based on smartphone technology, but this wasn’t ideal.
  • The advent of the versatile (and cheap) Raspberry Pi computer and Arduino electronics platform got the team thinking, and growing.

The best way to learn how a particle physics detector works is to design and build your own. That’s exactly what a small group of researchers have been doing in their spare time, and prototypes of their Cosmic Pi detector will be runners-up prizes in the CERN Beamline 4 Schools competition.

Motivated by a shared interest in citizen science and a passion for technology that goes well beyond their day jobs, James Devine, Justin Salmon, and Hugo Day (all from CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research) first started working on a low-cost cosmic-ray detector at the annual CERN Webfest in 2013.

Cosmic-ray detectors are nothing new, but with a price tag of up to around €18,000 (~$20,000) and the size of a large filing cabinet, few schools and colleges were likely to buy one, even with the promise of being part of an international collaboration. Devine (an electrical engineer), Salmon (a computer scientist), and Day (an applied physicist) want to produce a €250-400 (~$280-430) kit for students aged 14-18 to build their own open-source cosmic-ray detector and become part of a global cosmic-ray telescope.

The first design was based on smartphone technology but it wasn’t ideal. The advent of the versatile (and cheap) Raspberry Pi computer and Arduino electronics platform got the team thinking, and growing.

Through hackathons and other events, the team has gained members Cosimo Cantini from ETH Zurich; Etam Noah, Leila Haegel, and Ruslan Asfandiyarov from the University of Geneva; and Julian Lewis, a retired CERN engineer, with expertise in detector design, microcontrollers, readout electronics, and particle physics.

With most of the development work taking place at the weekends, what’s the motivation for the project? “We all want to learn how to build an entire detector,” says James, “from the power supply and detector design to the electronics and data analysis. We’ve all learnt from each other.”

The kit that runner-up teams in the Beamline 4 Schools competition will receive is still a prototype, and that means their feedback will be extremely valuable as Cosmic Pi develops. The goal is to produce an open-source design and make it available through crowdfunding.

“None of us are cosmic-ray scientists, but we’re building a community science project,” explains Hugo, “You don’t have to sit back and wait for scientists to do science!”

Want to know more about the project? Check out the CosmicPi website or watch Devine speaking at TEDxGeneva.

Interested in reading more about Raspberry Pi? Check out our story about Wee ARCHIE, a bite-sized supercomputer from the University of Edinburgh. 

This article is republished with permission from the UK News from CERN newsletter. Read the latest issue to find out about the role played by the Worldwide LHC Computing Grid in making the particle-physics research carried out at CERN possible.

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