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Maite Boden – The secrets of ghost particles

Physics and astronomy student Maite Boden discovered that an unwanted signal can actually be very useful. During her bachelor's thesis, she participated in the calibration of a neutrino telescope in the Mediterranean Sea. ‘There is still so much we don’t know about these neutrinos!’

Fascination for the Universe

In high school, mathematics and physics were already Boden's favourite subjects. ‘My physics teacher sometimes brought me extra books. In addition, together with an astronomy student, I did research into the expansion of the Universe. This way, I became fascinated by the mysteries of the Universe.’ Therefore, she decided to study physics and astronomy in Leiden. After obtaining her bachelor's degree in 2019, Boden left for Edinburgh for the master's programme Particle and Nuclear Physics. ‘After this, I’ll probably want to do a PhD in particle physics or look for a way to apply my studies in the business world.’

Ghost particles

For her bachelor's research, Boden worked on a special project: the neutrino telescope of the KM3NeT group at the Dutch National Institute for Subatomic Physics in Nikhef. This group tries to unravel the secrets of neutrinos. ‘In our current model of the universe, there is still one kind of particle that we do not understand properly, and that is the neutrino,’ says Boden. ‘They are a kind of ‘ghost particles’: they undergo almost no interaction with anything and move through everything unseen. This makes them very difficult to observe.

I focused my research on improving neutrino detection methods. Although neutrinos are very hard to detect, they can help us understand the Standard Model, our Sun, faraway stars and galaxies, and even the birth of the Universe!

More knowledge about neutrinos is needed to answer all kinds of important questions about the universe, such as why we observe more matter than antimatter. Neutrinos are extremely light, but the masses are still unknown. To be able to measure them, very accurate observations are needed. Boden: ‘The KM3NeT detector must undergo an extremely accurate calibration, so that we can determine the exact time and position of the particles. I helped with this during my bachelor's research.’

Useful noise

KM3NeT already works with a laser setup and will also build a system located in the sea that can accurately calibrate its position with acoustic waves. These systems are very complicated, expensive and certainly not yet perfect. But with her research, Boden contributed quite a bit: ‘I have shown that we can also achieve the necessary accuracy ‒ especially in time calibration, and possibly also in position calibration ‒ by using a background signal. This signal is caused by another kind of particle: the muon. Muons are produced abundantly in our atmosphere, and I used that in my method. The signal from the particles is normally considered undesirable, but turns out to be very useful!’

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