The Alta Project, Dr. James Pinfold, U Of A

2007 Winner: Excellence In Science And Technology Public Awareness

It is appropriate that someone who first became interested in science on a field trip to the London planetarium should be recognised by ASTech for creating a program that has school children around Alberta contributing to a multi-site cosmic ray detection project. Kids who grow up in the downtown section of England’s capital city don’t see much in the way of stars (except for players of his beloved Arsenal Gunners soccer team, of course). Sitting in that planetarium was a revelation to young James Pinfold, who felt something deep within him awaken of a universe filled with starlight.

Once launched, that love of science never stopped. After completing his secondary schooling, James attended London’s Royal College of Science, a constituent of the Imperial College of Science and Technology, which counts HG Wells among its alumni. In 1972 he moved a few miles across town to University College, completing his PhD in 1977. The trail of top-flight institutions was just beginning, and he began his post-doctoral research at the legendary CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire or European Organization for Nuclear Research) on the Franco-Swiss border, near Geneva. He completed his post-doc at the equally prestigious Chicago-based Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab. Upon completing his post-graduate work, Dr. Pinfold spent a few years as an associate professorship at Israel’s Weizmann Institute in Israel. He remembers vividly watching a SCUD missile hit a kilometre from his workplace during the First Gulf War. Needless to say, things calmed down considerably when he and his wife Melinda came to Edmonton in 1992. Appointed as an associate professor, he became director of the University of Alberta’s Centre for Subatomic Research in 1996, a post he held until 2005, the year he became a full professor. Far-flung travels for a man who took his first trip abroad in his early 20s to present his graduate research on the discovery of something called “neutral currents,” at a conference in Paris, France. A conference that launched both his love of travel and his remarkable career.

It’s quite a resume—Imperial College, University College, CERN, Fermilab, and the Weizmann Institute, not to mention the U of A. But Dr. Pinfold’s ASTech prize is not for research, per se. Rather, we are recognising his work with high school students, getting them involved in, and excited about, research into the distant avatars of the high-energy universe. In a sense, James Pinfold has come full circle back to his scientific beginnings as the starry-eyed kid staring at the heavens in a planetarium.

The Alberta Large-area Time-coincidence Array, or ALTA, Project, involves spreading out many cosmic-ray detectors over vast areas, connecting them through the Internet, and synchronising their readings with an integrated GPS system. Most of the detectors are run by high school students, making science come alive in a unique way by having them look for and finding data no one else has ever seen before. They are effectively engaged in high-level, fundamental research, which is far more interesting than studying theory in books. The technology is even more exciting which one considers how relatively inexpensive and easy to deploy it is. This places similar projects within the grasp of kids in the developing world, providing them a level playing field and putting them on par with students in North America and Western Europe. As a result, such arrays have been established and are being run by teenagers in Romania, Mexico, and several African countries, as well as in a number of US states, and they are all contributing equally. A truly spectacular result and one that is truly worthy of an ASTech prize for Excellence in Science and Technology Public Awareness.

How did such an innovative educational effort come to be? It seems a long way from the halls of academe and not particularly apt for a subatomic researcher. Dr. Pinfold explains. “A few of us, including a teacher, were looking at an arrangement of two cosmic-ray detectors sandwiching an absorber material. There was an obvious coincidence in time between the signals received by the top and bottom detectors because cosmic ray particles travel at nearly the speed of light. The coincidences were registered by fast electronics reading out the signal from the two detectors.

“We were working on a table on which a very large map of the world had been laid out. When we pulled the detector apart to change the absorber material, we noticed the coincidences being registered by the electronics continued even though the two detectors on the table were now separated by more than a metre.

“I realised this was because cosmic ray particles often come in showers that originate from an interaction of a single, high-energy cosmic ray primary high in the atmosphere (about 10km up). The particles in the shower would all hit the table at roughly the same time, covering an area that is proportional in some way to the energy of the original primary cosmic ray. We had accidentally recreated the conditions of the legendary 1938 experiment in which Pierre Auger discovered cosmic ray air showers.

“But the detectors lying on different parts of the world map represented something new. It occurred to me one could look for coincidences from separate showers, originating from different high-energy primaries, separated by larger distances of at least 10 kilometres. Typical ‘professional’ cosmic ray arrays usually seek single showers from single primaries. We would do something new: use GPS systems to keep time consistently and look for coincidences over massive areas—eventually across continents. These coincidences would result from bursts of primary cosmic rays in the extremely high energy universe (gamma ray bursters, black hole evaporation, cosmic strings, etc.). Hints of such large area coincidences had been seen but little follow-up work had been accomplished.”

The idea of bringing kids into the mix was exciting and made sense for a number of reasons. James firmly believes that the best way to turn students on to science is to excite their imaginations and creativity with something real rather than subjecting them with another educational exercise. In effect, he is following Einstein’s famous adage that “imagination” is more important than “knowledge.”  By deploying cosmic ray detectors in high schools and directly involving the students and teachers in a research partnership with university researchers, Dr. Pinfold did just that, and the ALTA Project was born. As noted above, the idea has now spread around the world and has served three fundamental purposes: first, of course, it has yielded valuable scientific research. Second, it has greatly increased public awareness of this rather exotic field. Third, and we believe this will have tremendous impact in the years to come, the ALTA Project and Dr. James Pinfold have created a new generation of kids who are excited by, and knowledgeable of, science and technology. That is a legacy that cannot be overlooked.