Research, teaching and outreach in Physics at UW–Madison
IceCube shows Milky Way galaxy is a neutrino desert
The Milky Way galaxy is an awe-inspiring feature of the night sky, dominating all wavelengths of light and viewable with the naked eye as a hazy band of stars stretching from horizon to horizon. Now,
In a June 30 article in the journal Science, the IceCube Collaboration — an international group of more than 350 scientists — presents this new evidence of high-energy neutrino emission from the Milky Way. The findings indicate that the Milky Way produces far fewer neutrinos than the average distant galaxies.
“What’s intriguing is that, unlike the case for light of any wavelength, in neutrinos, the universe outshines the nearby sources in our own galaxy,” says Francis Halzen, a professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and principal investigator at IceCube.
The IceCube search focused on the southern sky, where the bulk of neutrino emission from the galactic plane is expected near the center of the galaxy. However, until now, a background of neutrinos and other particles produced by cosmic-ray interactions with the Earth’s atmosphere made it difficult to parse out neutrinos originating from galactic sources — a significant challenge compounded by relatively sparse neutrino production in general.
Erica Magee, Mathematics, Physics; working with Martin Zanni (Chemistry)
Elias Mettner, Physics; working with Abdollah Mohammadi (Physics)
The fellowships include a stipend to each student and to their faculty advisers. Fellowships are funded by grants from the Brittingham Wisconsin Trust and the Kemper K. Knapp Bequest, with additional support from UW-System, the Chancellor’s Office and the Provost’s Office.
Researchers capture elusive missing step in the final act of photosynthesis
Photosynthesis plays a crucial role in shaping and sustaining life on Earth, yet many aspects of the process remain a mystery. One such mystery is how Photosystem II, a protein complex in plants, algae and cyanobacteria, harvests energy from sunlight and uses it to split water, producing the oxygen we breathe. Now researchers from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, together with collaborators from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and other institutions have succeeded in cracking a key secret of Photosystem II.
Using SLAC’s Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) and the SPring-8 Angstrom Compact free electron LAser (SACLA) in Japan, they captured for the first time in atomic detail what happens in the final moments leading up to the release of breathable oxygen. The data reveal an intermediate reaction step that had not been observed before.
The results, published today in Nature, shed light on how nature has optimized photosynthesis and are helping scientists develop artificial photosynthetic systems that mimic photosynthesis to harvest natural sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into hydrogen and carbon-based fuels.
“The splitting of water to molecular oxygen by photosynthesis has dramatically reshaped our early planet, eventually leading to complex life forms that rely on oxygen for respiration, including ourselves,” says Uwe Bergmann, a physics professor at UW–Madison. “Capturing the final steps of this process in real time with x-ray laser pulses, and bringing to light the individual atoms involved, is thrilling and adds an important piece to solving this over 3-billion-year-old puzzle.”
IceCube search for sub-TeV neutrino emission associated with LIGO/Virgo gravitational waves
Gravitational waves (GWs) are produced by some of the most extreme astrophysical phenomena, such as black hole and neutron star mergers. They have long been suspected as astrophysical sources of neutrinos, ghostlike cosmic messengers hurtling through space unimpeded. Thus far, common astrophysical sources of neutrinos and photons, as well as common sources of gravitational waves and light, have been identified. However, no one has yet detected sources that emit both gravitational waves and neutrinos.
In a study recently submitted to The Astrophysical Journal, the IceCube Collaboration performed a new search for neutrinos from GWs at the GeV-TeV scale. Although no evidence of neutrino emission was found, new upper limits on the number of neutrinos associated with each gravitational wave source and on the total energy emitted by neutrinos for each source were set.
Previously, IceCube searched for neutrinos from GW sources using the TeV-PeV neutrinos detected by the main IceCube Neutrino Observatory, a cubic-kilometer detector enveloped in Antarctic ice at the South Pole. This time, collaborators used data taken with the DeepCore array, the innermost component of IceCube consisting of sensors more densely spaced than in the main array. DeepCore can detect lower energy (GeV and upward) neutrinos than is possible with the larger main array.
The analysis looked for temporal and spatial correlations between 90 GW events detected by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and the Virgo gravitational wave detectors and neutrinos detected by DeepCore. The researchers found no significant excess of neutrinos from the direction of the GW events but set stringent upper limits on the neutrino flux and limits on the energies associated with neutrinos from each GW source.
“These results do not mean that all hope is lost for detecting such joint emissions,” says Aswathi Balagopal V., a postdoctoral associate at UW–Madison and co-lead of the analysis. “With improvements in directional reconstructions for low-energy neutrinos, which is expected with better methods and with the inclusion of the IceCube Upgrade, we will be able to achieve better sensitivities for such joint searches, potentially leading to a positive discovery.”
On October 9th, 2022, an unusually bright pulse of high-energy radiation whizzed past Earth, captivating astronomers around the world. The luminous emission came from a gamma-ray burst (GRB), one of the most powerful classes of explosions in the universe. Named GRB 221009A, it triggered detectors at NASA’s Gamma-ray Burst Monitor and Large Area Telescope (both on board the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope), the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory, and the Wind spacecraft as well as other telescopes that quickly turned to the GRB site to study its aftermath.
This record-shattering GRB is one of the closest and the brightest GRB ever spotted, earning it the nickname BOAT (“brightest of all time”). This GRB is believed to come from an exploding star and likely signals the birth of a black hole.
In a new study by the IceCube Collaboration, published today in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, UW–Madison researchers presented results of one of five searches for neutrino emission from GRB 221009A that leveraged the full detector range, covering nine orders of magnitude in energy. Because no significant emission was found across samples spanning 10 MeV to 10 PeV, the results are the most stringent constraints on neutrino emission from GRBs.
As some of the most energetic sources in the universe, GRBs have long been considered a possible astrophysical source of neutrinos—tiny “ghostlike” particles that travel through space and large amounts of matter unhindered. These high-energy neutrinos are of particular interest to the National Science Foundation-supported IceCube Neutrino Observatory, a gigaton-scale neutrino detector at the South Pole.
IceCube is run by the international IceCube Collaboration, which comprises over 350 scientists from 58 institutions around the world. The Wisconsin IceCube Particle Astrophysics Center (WIPAC), a research center at UW–Madison, is the lead institution for the IceCube project.
Previously, IceCube has performed searches for neutrino emission from GRBs, but thus far, a correlation has not been found between high-energy neutrinos and GRBs. The recent observation of GRB 221009A presented IceCube with the best opportunity yet to search for neutrino emission by GRBs.
“Not only was this GRB the brightest ever detected in gamma rays, it also occurred in a region of the sky where IceCube is very sensitive,” says UW–Madison physics professor Justin Vandenbroucke, who helped lead the analysis.
For the study, collaborators carried out five complementary IceCube analyses that encompassed the full energy range of the detector. Each analysis targeted a specific energy range, with the idea of covering as wide an energy range as possible. UW–Madison physics PhD student Jessie Thwaites was one of the main analyzers.
Thwaites performed a “fast response” analysis based on real-time data from the South Pole to search for high-energy (0.10 teraelectronvolts to 10 petaelectronvolts) neutrinos from the direction of the GRB. They chose two time windows: one three-hour window covering all of the triggers reported in real time, and one covering two days. Their analysis, which set strong constraints on neutrino emission from GRBs, was quickly reported to the community, within hours of the GRB being detected by the gamma-ray satellites.
“In the high energies, our upper limits are very constraining—they are below the observations from gamma-ray telescopes,” says Thwaites. “These upper limits, combined with the observations from many electromagnetic telescopes, give us more information about GRBs as potential particle accelerators.”
Because this GRB is so bright, and because it has been so well studied, IceCube is able to place constraining upper limits on neutrino emission models proposed for this specific GRB. These constraints will enable better understanding of how GRBs work.
The collaborators are already developing new methods to improve searches for neutrinos from GRBs and other transient astrophysical sources. In addition, future upgrades and proposed extensions of IceCube, including the IceCube Upgrade project and IceCube-Gen2, could be the key to finding high-energy neutrino emission from GRBs or other transients.
According to Vandenbroucke, “This GRB illustrates the capabilities of IceCube for real-time follow-up of astrophysical transients. IceCube views the entire sky, all the time, over a factor of a billion in energy range. There is likely a burst of neutrinos already flying towards us from some other cosmic source, and we are ready for it.”
+ info “Limits on Neutrino Emission from GRB 221009A from MeV to PeV using the IceCube Neutrino Observatory,” The IceCube Collaboration: R. Abbasi et al. Published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. arxiv.org/abs/2302.05459
IceCube performs the first search for neutrinos from novae
White dwarfs are very dense, compact objects that are one of the possibilities for the final evolutionary state of stars. If they happen to be in a binary system with another companion star, the white dwarf may pull material from the companion star onto its surface. In this case, if enough material is accumulated, a nuclear reaction may occur on the surface of the white dwarf, causing a luminous burst of photons called a nova. Historically, astronomers believed they were seeing stars being born, hence the name, although we now know that is not the case. In the past decade, GeV and even TeV gamma rays were discovered from novae, suggesting that neutrinos—neutral, nearly massless cosmic messengers—could originate from novae as well.
In a paper recently submitted to The Astrophysical Journal, the IceCube Collaboration presents its first search for neutrinos from novae using a subarray of the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, a gigaton-scale detector operating at the South Pole. Although significant emission from novae was not found, IceCube set the first observational upper limits on neutrino emission from novae.
According to Justin Vandenbroucke, professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and one of the study leads, “Novae, the little cousins of supernovae, are one of the longest known types of astrophysical transient. The discovery that they produce gamma rays was a huge surprise. Our neutrino analyses are starting to add to the modern understanding of these historical phenomena.”
New quantum sensing technique reveals magnetic connections
By Leah Hesla, Q-NEXT
A research team supported by the Q-NEXT quantum research center demonstrates a new way to use quantum sensors to tease out relationships between microscopic magnetic fields.
Say you notice a sudden drop in temperature on both your patio and kitchen thermometers. At first, you think it’s because of a cold snap, so you crank up the heat in your home. Then you realize that while the outside has indeed become colder, inside, someone left the refrigerator door open.
Initially, you thought the temperature drops were correlated. Later, you saw that they weren’t.
Recognizing when readings are correlated is important not only for your home heating bill but for all of science. It’s especially challenging when measuring properties of atoms.
Now scientists — including those from UW–Madison physics professor Shimon Kolkowitz‘s group — have developed a method, reported in Science, that enables them to see whether magnetic fields detected by a pair of atom-scale quantum sensors are correlated or not.
In 15th century Germany, Johannes Gutenberg developed a printing press, a machine that allowed for mass production of texts. It is considered by many to be one of the most significant technological advancements of the last millennium.
Though Gutenberg often receives credit as the inventor of the printing press, sometime earlier, roughly 5,000 miles away, Koreans had already developed a movable-type printing press.
There is no question that East Asians were first. There is also no question that Gutenberg’s invention in Europe had a far greater impact.
He adds: “But even if we don’t, we can learn a lot about early printing methods, and that will already be a big insight.”
These texts include pages from a Gutenberg bible and Confucian texts, and they’re helping investigate these questions. The team includes 15th century Korean texts experts, Gutenberg experts, paper experts, ink experts and many more.
How did two physicists end up participating in a seemingly very non-physics cultural heritage project? Bergmann had previously worked on other historical text analyses, where he pioneered the application of a technique known as X-ray fluorescence (XRF) imaging.
In XRF imaging, a powerful machine called a synchrotron sends an intense and very small X-ray beam — about the diameter of a human hair — at a page of text at a 45-degree angle. The beam excites electrons in the atoms that make up the text, requiring another electron to fill in the space left by the first (all matter is made up of atoms, which contain even smaller components called electrons).
The second electron loses energy in the process, and that energy is released as a small flash of light. A detector placed strategically nearby picks up that light, or its X-ray fluorescence, and measures both its intensity and the part of the light spectrum to which it belongs.
“Every single element on the periodic table emits an X-ray fluorescence spectrum that is unique to that atom when hit with a high-energy X-ray. Based on its ‘color,’ we know exactly which element is present,” says Gardezi. “It’s a very high-precision instrument that tells you all the elements that are at every location in a sample.”
With this information, researchers can effectively create an elemental map of the document. By rapidly scanning a page across the X-ray beam, they can create a record of the XRF spectrum at each pixel. One page can produce several million XRF spectra.
This summer, Bergmann and Gardezi were part of a team that used XRF scanning at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California to produce elemental maps of several large areas from original pages of a first-edition, 42-line Gutenberg Bible (dating back to 1450 to 1455 A.D.) and from Korean texts dating back to the early part of that. century.
They scanned the texts at a rate of around one pixel every 10 milliseconds, then filtered the data by elemental signature, providing high-resolution maps of which elements are present and in what relative quantities.
In a way, the work is like digging for treasure from an old map — Gardezi says the researchers do not know exactly what they are looking for, but they are most interested in the unexpected.
For example, she recently presented early results of scans to the team, to demonstrate the approach had worked and that the researchers could separate out different elements. It turns out this isn’t what the team found most interesting.
“Instead, these scholars spent 15-to-20 minutes talking about, ‘Why is (this element) present?’ and coming up with hypotheses,” Gardezi says. “As physicists, we wouldn’t even recognize if something is surprising or not. It’s really this interdisciplinary aspect that tells us what to look for, what the smoking gun is.”
As more questions arise based on the elemental analyses, Bergmann and Gardezi will help guide the team to address those questions quantitatively. They are already planning to recreate some early printings in the lab — with known types, papers and inks — then compare these XRF scans with the originals.
The research may never definitively determine if Gutenberg knew about the Korean presses or if he developed his press independently. But without access to the original presses themselves, these texts hold the only clues to understanding the nature of these transformative machines.
“The more you read about it, the more you learn that there is less certainty about several things related to early printing presses,” Bergmann says. “Maybe this technique will allow us to view these prints as a time capsule and gain invaluable insight into this watershed moment in human history.”
The UW–Madison efforts in the project are supported by the Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation.
Coherent light production found in very low optical density atomic clouds
No atom is an island, and scientists have known for decades that groups of atoms form communities that “talk” to each other. But there is still much to learn about how atoms — particularly energetically excited ones — interact in groups.
In a study published in PRX Quantum, physicists from the University of Wisconsin–Madison observed communication between atoms at lower and lower densities. They found that the atoms influence each other at 100 times lower densities than probed before, exhibiting slow decay rates and emitting coherent light.
“It seems that (low-density) groups of excited atoms spontaneously organize to then produce light that is coherent,” says David Gold, a postdoctoral fellow in Deniz Yavuz’s group and lead author of the study. “These findings are pretty interesting from a basic science standpoint, and in terms of quantum computing, the takeaway is that even with very low numbers of atoms, you can see significant amounts of (these effects).”
A well-established property of atoms is found in electron excitation: when a specific wavelength of light hits an atom of a specific element, an electron is excited to a higher orbital level. As that electron decays back to its initial state, a photon of a specific wavelength is emitted. A single atom has a characteristic decay rate for that process. When groups of atoms are studied, their interactions are observed: the initial decay rate is very fast, or superradiant, then transitions to a slower, or subradiant, rate.
Though well-established in dense clouds, this group-talk has never been studied in less dense clouds of atoms, which could have impacts on applications such as quantum computing.
In their first set of experiments, Gold and colleagues asked what the decay rate of lower-density clouds looked like. They supercooled the atoms in a cloud, hit them with an excitation laser, and recorded the decay rates as an intensity of emitted light over time. They observed the characteristic subradiance. In this case, they did not always see superradiance, likely due to the reduced number of atoms available to measure.
Next, they asked what happened if they let the cloud expand — or decrease in density — for varying periods of time before repeating their experiment. They found that as the cloud become less and less dense, the amount of subradiance decreased, until eventually a density was reached where the atoms stopped behaving like a group and instead displayed single-atom decay rates.
“The most subradiance that we observed was at around a hundred times lower optical density than it had previously been observed before,” Gold says.
Now that the researchers knew that a less dense cloud still decays subradiantly to a point, they asked if the decay was happening in an isolated manner, or if the atoms were really acting as a group. If acting as a group, the emitted light would be coherent, or more laser-like, with some structure between the atoms.
They used the same experimental setup but added an interferometer, where light is split and recombined before the photons are detected. They first set the baseline interference pattern by moving the mirror closer or further away from the splitter — changing the path length of one of the beams — and mapping the interference pattern of the split light waves that were emitted from the same atom.
If there were no relationship between the two atoms and the light they emit, then they would have expected to see no interference pattern. Instead, they saw that for some distance of mirror displacement, the lightwaves did interfere, indicating that different atoms being measured were nonetheless producing coherent light.
“I think this is the more exciting thing we found: that the light that’s being emitted is coherent and it has more of the properties of a laser than you would expect,” Gold says. “The atoms are influenced by each other and not in a way we would have expected.”
Aside from the interesting physics seen in the study, Gold says the work is also applicable to quantum computing, particularly as those computers grow bigger in the future.
“Even if everything in a quantum computer is running perfectly and the system was completely isolated, there’s still this inherent thing of, well, the atoms just might decay down from [the computational] state,” Gold says.
The fusion furnaces that are the universe’s stars create the elements from helium up to iron. But iron is only number 26 on the periodic table out of well over 100 known elements. So the heavier ones, like gold, lead and uranium, must come from somewhere other than fusion.
Scientists have long known that those heavy elements come from neutron capture, where neutrons are added to an element that make it unstable, then it radioactively decays and its atomic number increases by one. Nearly 70 years ago, they confirmed one site, or event, of a neutron capture method known as the slow, or s-process. The rapid, or r-process, was not confirmed with a site until 2017, when the LIGO/VIRGO collaboration detected a neutron star merger.
“With a neutron star merger, the neutron stars are ripped apart and they throw out neutrons, and you can build lots of heavy elements out of these neutron stars,” says Jim Lawler, a professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “The mystery arises when we look at the total r-process inventory of our home galaxy: Can we explain all that with neutron star mergers or are there additional sites?”
In a new study led by astronomers from the University of Michigan, Lawler and colleagues identified the elemental composition of HD 222925, a Milky Way star located over 1400 lightyears from earth. Their analysis confirmed that the star was rich in r-process elements, and they were able to identify and calculate the relative abundance of each element. They also found that the star is iron- and metal-poor, a proxy for age that indicates HD 222925 is relatively old and provides information about early star formation.
“We were able to determine a complete r-process abundance pattern for what we think is probably one event that happened early in the beginning of the universe,” Lawler says. “So that r-process template now can be used to screen various models of the nuclear physics that produce the r-process and see if the models for all sites are physically correct.”
At UW–Madison, Lawler and scientist Elizabeth Denhartog contributed the spectroscopic analysis that identified the elements in the star. Every element has a unique electromagnetic spectrum that can be separated into spectral lines using a diffraction grating — just like a prism separates white light into a rainbow. HD 222925 is a relatively bright star, meaning it provided stronger spectra to analyze. It was also identified by the Hubble Space Telescope, providing access to data in the ultraviolet range that is normally blocked by the ozone layer and undetectable by telescopes on Earth.
THIS STUDY WAS SUPPORTED IN PART BY NASA (GRANTS GO-15657, GO-15951, AND 80NSSC21K0627); U.S. NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION (NSF, GRANTS PHY 14-30152, OISE 1927130, AST 1716251 AND AST 1815403); AND THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY (GRANT DE-FG02-95-ER40934); AND NOIRLAB, WHICH IS MANAGED UNDER A COOPERATIVE AGREEMENT WITH THE NSF.