Ke Fang named inaugural recipient of the Bernice Durand Faculty Fellowship

The Department of Physics is pleased to announce that Ke Fang, assistant professor of physics and WIPAC investigator, has received the inaugural Bernice Durand Faculty Fellowship. This fellowship, given in honor of late Professor Emerit of Physics Bernice Durand, recognizes Fang’s major contributions to the analysis of data from the NASA Fermi satellite, the High Altitude Water Cherenkov (HAWC) telescope and IceCube, and for fundamental theoretical insights in their multimessenger context. Fang is a Sloan Fellow, has been awarded an NSF CAREER award, and is the spokesperson for the HAWC experiment.

a man and a woman smile while both holding a framed award certificate
Department Chair and professor Mark Eriksson (left) presents assistant professor Ke Fang with the Bernice Durand Faculty Fellowship at the department awards banquet in May 2024.

Durand was one of the first two women professors in the UW–Madison Department of Physics. While at UW–Madison, Durand was a theoretical physicist who specialized in particle theory and mathematical physics. Her research was on symmetry relations in algebra and physics, plus the phenomenology of high-energy interactions at large particle accelerators.

As the first Associate Vice Chancellor for Diversity & Climate, Professor Durand provided leadership to ensure that faculty, staff, and student diversity issues including race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, and classroom and general campus workplace climate issues be addressed, and that search committees for non-classified staff be trained in broadening the pool of applicants and eliminating implicit bias. Durand co-directed a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to the UW System designed to create more equity, flexibility and career options for faculty and academic staff. She was also a member of the leadership team of the Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute sponsored by the National Science Foundation to increase the participation and status of women in science.

A recipient of the Chancellor’s Award for Outstanding Teaching, Professor Durand taught courses at all levels, from modern physics for non-scientists (“Physics for Poets”) to a specialized course she developed for advanced graduate students in the use of topology and algebra in quantum field theory. In the mid 1990s, she used technological and pedagogical techniques in her teaching, such as broadcasting her modern physics for non-scientists course on public television with web-based coursework, and pioneering one of two early versions of MOOCs (massive open online courses) on campus.

Durand passed away in 2022.

The Bernice Durand Faculty Fellowship was conceived by our Board of Visitors, who spearheaded the ultimately-successful fundraising effort, with support from Professor Emerit Randy Durand for this fellowship honoring his wife.

Two physics students win presentation awards at APS April Meeting

Elias Mettner and Nadia Talbi, both conducting research in high energy physics at UW–Madison, won undergraduate presenter awards at the American Physical Society’s April Meeting.

The meeting, held in Sacramento April 3-6, included seven undergraduate oral presentation sessions with six to eight students in each session. The top two students from each session earned “Top Presenter” awards. Mettner and Talbi were the only two UW–Madison students who gave oral presentations, and both won awards.

profile photo of Elias Mettner
Elias Mettner

Mettner is a physics major working with scientist Abdollah Mohammadi. His talk was titled “Pair Production and Hadron Photoproduction Backgrounds at the Cool Copper Collider.”

The Cool Copper Collider is a proposed electron-positron collider that will help scientists to explore the Higgs boson even further. The electron-positron beam will have some natural decay that converts into particles and is recorded by the detector. Mettner’s research asks how this beam background will impact the detector.

“The detector will record this background, and it could take the place of the data we want or make it harder to reconstruct data,” Mettner says. “It’s important to make sure that the backgrounds that will come into the detector using this new design will not cause any issues, otherwise the benefits of this collider design cannot be put to their maximum use.”

Mettner had been interested in physics from a young age and comes from a family of teachers who encouraged him to explore his academic interests. Upon entering UW–Madison, he jumped at the chance to conduct research in particle physics. He joined the UW CMS Collaboration in his freshman year through the Undergraduate Research Scholars program and began his project with the Cool Copper Collider soon after. He was also awarded the Sophomore Research Fellowship for his junior year and the Hilldale Research Fellowship for his upcoming senior year.

a woman stands in front of a screen with a powerpoint presentation title slide showing
Nadia Talbi presents at APS April Meeting

Talbi is an astronomy-physics major working in physics professor Tulika Bose’s group and mentored by postdoc Charis Koraka. Her talk, “A Search for Vector-Like Leptons: Compact Analysis,” covered work she has done through a Thaxton Fellowship.

“Bosons are force particles, and basically every boson except for the Higgs — the photon, the gluon — is a vector boson. Leptons are electrons, muons, neutrinos, stuff like that,” Talbi explains. “Vector-like leptons are a hypothetical particle, we don’t know whether or not they exist.”

Talbi was drawn to astronomy because she has long had an interest in the fundamental nature of the universe. As a child, she read an article on Dark Matter and, later, a friend gave her a book on the Standard Model. She was hooked. When she applied for the Thaxton Fellowship, a departmental program that was started to provide more equitable access to undergraduate research in physics, she discussed her interest in particle physics and the research at CERN, which landed her in Bose’s group.

“So before I even had any formal education in physics, where things can be very black and white, I’ve had the opportunity to understand the beautiful things within the field,” Talbi says. “Studying physics, I think, gives you some of the most fundamental understanding of our existence.”

Both Metter and Talbi say that attending conference was overall a very worthwhile experience — even if they both had to take an E+M exam remotely before presenting. (“It was a good bonding experience,” Talbi says.)

“The conference was a lot of fun, and worth it to go and make some connections and experience a bunch of really interesting research from people all in different stages of their careers,” Mettner says.

Adds Talbi: “There were so many undergraduates there, I met so many, I made a lot of friends. It felt like there was a community.”

Both students were also invited to present their award-winning talks to the Physics Board of Visitors spring meeting.

Bringing the Quantum to the Classical: A Hybrid Simulation of Supernova Neutrinos

By Daniel Heimsoth, Physics PhD student

Simulating quantum systems on classical computers is currently a near-impossible task, as memory and computation time requirements scale exponentially with the size of the system. Quantum computers promise to solve this scalability issue, but there is just one problem: they can’t reliably do that right now because of exorbitant amounts of noise. 

So when UW–Madison physics postdoc Pooja Siwach, former undergrad Katie Harrison BS ‘23, and professor Baha Balantekin wanted to simulate neutrino evolution inside a supernova, they needed to get creative.  

profile photo of Pooja Siwach
Pooja Siwach

Their focus was on a phenomenon called collective neutrino oscillations, which describes a peculiar type of interaction between neutrinos. Neutrinos are unique among elementary particles in that they change type, or flavor, as they propagate through space. These oscillations between flavors are dictated by the density of neutrinos and other matter in the medium, both of which change from the core to the outer layers of a supernova. Physicists are interested in how the flavor composition of neutrinos evolve in time; this is calculated using a time evolution simulation, one of the most popular calculations currently done on quantum computers.  

Ideally, researchers could calculate each interaction between every possible pair of neutrinos in the system. However, supernovae produce around 10^58 neutrinos, a literally astronomical number. “It’s really complex, it’s very hard to solve on classical computers,” Siwach says. “That’s why we are interested in quantum computing because quantum computers are a natural way to map such problems.” 

profile photo of Katie Harrison
Katie Harrison

This naturalness is due to the “two-level” similarities between quantum computers and neutrino flavors. Qubits are composed of two-level states, and neutrino flavor states are approximated as two levels in most physical systems including supernovae.  

In a paper published in Physical Review D in October, Siwach, Harrison, and Balantekin studied the collective oscillation problem using a quantum-assisted simulator, or QAS, which combines the benefits of the natural mapping of the system onto qubits and classical computers’ strength in solving matrix equations. 

In QAS, the interactions between particles are broken down into a linear combination of products of Pauli matrices, which are the building blocks for quantum computing operations, while the state itself is split into a sum of simpler states. The quantum portion of the problem then boils down to computing products of basis states with each Pauli term in the interaction. These products are then inputted into the oscillation equations.

a graph with 4 neutrino traces in 4 colors
Flavor composition (y-axis) of four supernova neutrinos over time due to collective oscillations, calculated using the quantum-assisted simulator. The change in flavor for each neutrino over time shows the effect of neutrino-neutrino interactions.

“Then we get the linear-algebraic equations to solve, and solving such equations on a quantum computer requires a lot of resources,” explains Siwach. “That part we do on classical computers.”  

This approach allows researchers to use the quantum computers only once before the actual time evolution simulation is done on a classical computer, avoiding common pitfalls in quantum calculations such as error accumulation over the length of the simulation due to noisy gates. The authors showed that the QAS results for a four-neutrino system match with a pure classical calculation, showcasing the power of this approach, especially compared to a purely quantum simulation which quickly deviates from the exact solution due to accumulated errors from gates controlling two qubits at the same time. 

Still, as with any current application of quantum computers, there are limitations. “There’s only so much information that we can compute in a reasonable amount of time [on quantum computers],” says Siwach. She also laments the scalability of both the QAS and full quantum simulation. “One more hurdle is scaling to a larger number of neutrinos. If we scale to five or six neutrinos, it will require more qubits and more time, because we have to reduce the time step as well.” 

Harrison, who was an undergraduate physics student at UW–Madison during this project, was supported by a fellowship from the Open Quantum Initiative, a new program to expand undergrad research experiences in quantum computing and quantum information science. She enjoyed her time in the program and thinks that it benefits students looking to get involved in research in the field: “I think it’s really good for students to see what it really means to do research and to see if it’s something that you’re capable of doing or something that you’re interested in.” 

trace of neutrino flavor composition over time comparing a quantum simulation to a full classical one
Flavor composition of a neutrino over time using a full quantum simulation (red points) compared to exact solution (black line). The points start to drift from the exact solution after only a few oscillations, highlighting how noise in the quantum computer negatively affects the calculation.

 

Vernon Barger elected AAAS Fellow

This story is modified from one published by University Communications 

profile photo of Vernon Barger
Vernon Barger

Eight University of Wisconsin­–Madison scholars — including physics professor Vernon Barger — have been elected fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general scientific society.

Barger was elected for “seminal work in studying fundamental particles at colliders and leadership in particle phenomenology, where theory meets experiment.”

This year, 502 scientists, engineers and innovators were chosen from the AAAS membership to be AAAS Fellows. The honor, presented annually since 1874, recognizes efforts to advance science and society, with the fellows chosen to reflect the highest standards of scientific integrity and professional ethics.

“As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the AAAS Fellows, AAAS is proud to recognize the newly elected individuals,” said Sudip S. Parikh, AAAS chief executive officer and executive publisher of the Science family of journals. “This year’s class embodies scientific excellence, fosters trust in science throughout the communities they serve and leads the next generation of scientists while advancing scientific achievements.”

The new class of fellows will be featured in the April issue of the journal Science, and each new fellow will be celebrated at a September event in Washington, D.C.

Federal physics advisory panel — including Profs. Bose and Cranmer — announces particle physics recommendations

Earlier this year, physics professors Tulika Bose and Kyle Cranmer were selected to serve on the Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel, or P5, a group of High Energy Physics experts that advises the Department of Energy Office of Science and the National Science Foundation’s Division of Physics on high energy and particle physics matters.

P5 announced their recommendations in a draft report published Dec. 7 — and UW–Madison physicists are featured in many of the projects.

One recommendation is to move forward with a planned expansion of the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, an international scientific collaboration operated by the UW–Madison at the South Pole. Other recommendations include support for a separate neutrino experiment based in Illinois (the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment, or DUNE); continuing investment in the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland and the Rubin Observatory in Chile; and expanding involvement in the Cherenkov Telescope Array (CTA), a ground-based very-high-energy gamma ray observatory. UW–Madison physicists have leading roles in all of these research efforts.

Additional recommendations include the development of a next generation of ground-based telescopes to observe the cosmic microwave background and a direct dark matter detector experiment, among others.

Read the full story

Lu Lu receives 2023 IUPAP Early Career Scientist Prize

This story was originally posted by WIPAC

IceCube collaborator and UW–Madison assistant professor of physics Lu Lu received a 2023 International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) Early Career Scientist Prize “for her contributions to the development of high energy neutrino astronomy in the PeV energy region.” Lu accepted the award on July 27 during the opening ceremony at the 38th International Cosmic Ray Conference (ICRC) held in Nagoya, Japan.

profile photo of Lu Lu
Lu Lu

Early Career Scientist Prizes are given to early career scientists within each IUPAP commission who have up to eight years of postdoctoral research experience and have made significant contributions to the cosmic ray field. Lu is a recipient of the Early Career Scientist Prize in the Commission on Astroparticle Physics (C4).

Her PhD work focused on developing a novel technique to search for ultra-high-energy photons using data from the Pierre Auger Observatory. She also played a leading role in the initial design of the “Dual optical sensors in an Ellipsoid Glass for Gen2” (D-Egg), a two-PMT optical module for the IceCube Upgrade.

More recently, she made key contributions to the multimessenger correlation studies of the neutrino source candidate TXS0506+056 and to the detection of a particle shower associated with the hadronic decay of a resonant W boson.

Lu is currently an assistant professor of physics at the Wisconsin IceCube Particle Astrophysics Center (WIPAC) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her current research focuses on diffuse high-energy astrophysical/cosmogenic neutrinos from TeV to EeV, Galactic PeVatron detection in the context of multimessenger observations, and the exploration of potential transient ultra-high-energy sources.

She is actively involved in IceCube outreach initiatives and has pioneered the development of an app that provides IceCube real-time alerts via augmented reality on mobile devices. Currently, she serves as co-lead of the diffuse science working group in IceCube and is one of three representatives of the physical science group of US-SCAR (Scientific Committee of Antarctic Research).

“I would like to express my deep appreciation for my collaborators and for those who work on foundational tasks such as reconstructions and calibrations, as their efforts behind the scenes make groundbreaking discoveries possible,” said Lu. “As early career scientists, we bear the responsibility of continuing and expanding experiments in the particle astrophysics field. We must collaborate and work together to ensure that the next generation of young scientists will have exciting discoveries to make.”

Study of high-energy particles leads PhD student Alex Wang to Department of Energy national lab

This story, by Meghan Chua, was originally published by the Graduate School

In 2012, scientists at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider announced they had observed the Higgs boson particle, verifying many of the theories of physics that rely on its existence.

profile photo of Alex Wang
Alex Wang

Since then, scientists have continued to search for the properties of the Higgs boson and for related particles, including an extremely rare case where two Higgs boson particles appear at the same time, called di-Higgs production.

“We’ve had some searches for di-Higgs right now, but we don’t see anything significant yet,” said Alex Wang, a PhD student in experimental high energy physics at UW­–Madison. “It could be because it doesn’t exist, which would be interesting. But it also could just be because, according to the Standard Model theory, it’s very rare.”

Wang will have a chance to aid in the search for di-Higgs production in more ways than one. Starting in November, he will spend a year at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory as an awardee in the Department of Energy Office of Science Graduate Student Research Program.

The program funds outstanding graduate students to pursue thesis research at Department of Energy (DOE) laboratories. Students work with a DOE scientist on projects addressing societal challenges at the national and international scale.

At the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, Wang will primarily work on hardware for a planned upgrade of the ATLAS detector, one of the many detectors that record properties of collisions produced by the Large Hadron Collider. Right now, ATLAS collects an already massive amount of data, including some events related to the Higgs boson particle. However, Higgs boson events are extremely rare.

In the future, the upgraded High-Luminosity Large Hadron Collider (HL-LHC) will enable ATLAS to collect even more data and help physicists to study particles like the Higgs boson in more detail. This will make it more feasible for researchers to look for extremely rare events such as di-Higgs production, Wang said. The ATLAS detector itself will also be upgraded to adjust for the new HL-LHC environment.

a black background with orange cones and small yellow box-like dots indicate the signal events
This image of a signal-like event in the ATLAS detector comes from one of the Higgs boson-related analyses Wang works on. The red cones and cyan towers indicate particles which may have originated from the decay of two Higgs boson particles. (Photo credit: ATLAS Experiment © 2021 CERN)

“I’m pretty excited to go there because SLAC is essentially where they’ll be assembling the innermost part of the ATLAS detector for the future upgrade,” Wang said. “So, I think it’s going to be a really central place in the future years, at least for this upgrade project.”

Increasing the amount of data a sensor collects can also cause problems, such as radiation damage to the sensors and more challenges sorting out meaningful data from background noise. Wang will help validate the performance of some of the sensors destined for the upgraded ATLAS detector.

“I’m also pretty excited because for the data analysis I’m doing right now, it’s mainly working in front of a computer, so it will be nice to have some experience working with my hands,” Wang said.

At SLAC, he will also spend time searching for evidence of di-Higgs production.

Wang’s thesis research at UW–Madison also revolves around the Higgs boson particle. He sifts through data from the Large Hadron Collider to tease out which events are “signals” related to the Higgs boson, versus events that are “backgrounds” irrelevant to his work.

One approach Wang uses is to predict how many signal events researchers expect to see, and then determine if the number of events recorded in the Large Hadron Collider is consistent with that prediction.

“If we get a number that’s consistent with our predictions, then that supports the existing model of physics that we have,” Wang said. “But for example, if you see that the theory predicts we’d have 10 events, but in reality, we see 100 events, then that could be an indication that there’s some new physics going on. So that would be a potential for discoveries.”

The Department of Energy formally approved the U.S. contribution to the High-Luminosity Large Hadron Collider accelerator upgrade project earlier this year. The HL-LHC is expected to start producing data in 2027 and continue through the 2030s. Depending on what the future holds, Wang may be able to use data from the upgraded ATLAS detector to find evidence of di-Higgs production. If that happens, he also will have helped build the machine that made it possible.

Francis Halzen named Vilas Research Professor

Francis Halzen

UW–Madison physics professor Francis Halzen has been named a Vilas Research Professor. Created “for the advancement of learning,” Vilas Research Professorships are granted to faculty with proven research ability and unusual qualifications and promise. The recipients of the award have contributed significantly to the research mission of the university and are recognized both nationally and internationally.

Halzen, the Gregory Breit and Hilldale Professor of Physics, joined the UW­­–Madison faculty in 1972. He has made pioneering contributions to particle physics and neutrino astrophysics, and he continues to be the driving force of the international IceCube Collaboration.

Early in his career, Halzen cofounded the internationally recognized phenomenology research institute in the UW–Madison Department of Physics to promote research at the interface of theory and experiment in particle physics. This institute is recognized for this research and for its leadership in the training of postdocs and graduate students in particle physics phenomenology.

The IceCube Neutrino Observatory is the culmination of an idea first conceived in the 1960s, and one in which Halzen has played an integral role in its design, implementation, and data acquisition and analysis for the past three decades. After initial experiments confirmed that the Antarctic ice was ultratransparent and established the observation of atmospheric neutrinos, IceCube was ready to become a reality. From 2004 to 2011, the South Pole observatory was constructed — the largest project ever assigned to a university and one led by Halzen.

After two years of taking data with the full detector, the IceCube Neutrino Observatory opened a new window onto the universe with its discovery of highly energetic neutrinos of extragalactic origin. This discovery heralded the beginning of the exploration of the universe with neutrino telescopes. The IceCube observation of cosmic neutrinos was named the 2013 Physics World Breakthrough of the Year.

Nationally and internationally renowned for this work, Halzen was awarded a 2014 American Ingenuity Award, a 2015 Balzan Prize, a 2018 Bruno Pontecorvo Prize, a 2019 Yodh Prize, and a 2021 Bruno Rossi Prize.

With the Vilas Research Professorship, Halzen is also recognized for his commitment to education and service in the department, university, and international science communities. He has taught everything from physics for nonscience majors to advanced particle physics and special topics courses at UW–Madison. He has actively participated on several departmental and university committees as well as advisory, review, and funding panels. His input is highly sought by committees and agencies that assess future priorities of particle and astroparticle physics research.

“Francis Halzen has had a prolific, internationally recognized research career, has shown excellence as an educator who is able to effectively communicate cutting-edge science on all levels, and has made tireless and valued contributions in service of the department,” says Sridhara Dasu, Physics Department chair. “He is one of the most creative and influential physicists of the last half century and worthy of the prestigious Vilas Research Professorship.”

Vilas awards are supported by the estate of professor, U.S. senator and UW Regent William F. Vilas (1840-1908). The Vilas Research Professorship provides five years of flexible funding — two-thirds of which is provided by the Office of the Provost through the generosity of the Vilas trustees and one-third provided by the school or college whose dean nominated the winner.

Halzen joins department colleagues Profs. Vernon Barger and Sau Lan Wu as recipients of this prestigious UW–Madison professorship.