Experience the South Pole in Madison with an exploration of sound, light and images

April 30, 2013

by Jill Sakai

Deep in the Antarctic ice, more than 5,000 detector modules sit in frozen darkness, waiting for the blue bursts of radiation released by particle interactions. Optimized to detect signs of neutrinos — tiny, nearly massless particles that can travel from the edges of the universe — these basketball-sized detectors comprise the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, one of the biggest astrophysics projects in the world.

For some of the scientists who work on this massive telescope, the experience can be almost as quiet. A handful of intrepid souls, referred to as "winterovers," brave the -100 F temps of the Antarctic winter to maintain the facility between on-site work seasons.

On Wednesday, May 8, Freija Descamps, an IceCube researcher who stayed at the South Pole Station during the austral winter of 2009-10, will present a special edition of Wednesday Nite @ the Lab at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. The event begins at 6 p.m. with free hands-on activities for all ages to explore physics, computer programming, and ice drilling and to learn about how and why IceCube was built. At 7, Descamps will share photos and videos from her experiences as a winterover responsible for maintaining the detector, troubleshooting, and helping provide data to the research collaboration.

"One experience that I often still think about from my time at the South Pole was a time I remember walking out of the IceCube Lab. It was the dead middle of winter, no moon, super dark. This one time, however, it was like the sky was raining down on me in this bright green curtain of an aurora [australis]. It was fast moving, ever changing, and really very bright," says Descamps.

For more than ten years, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has played a key role in designing, building, and developing IceCube, sending hundreds of Wisconsin people and products to the South Pole as part of the National Science Foundation-funded project. The Wisconsin IceCube Particle Astrophysics Center (WIPAC) will host the international IceCube Collaboration in May and provide opportunities for the public to learn about science at the South Pole, from Descamps' firsthand account and an interactive multimedia exhibit.

During the week of May 6-10, the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery will host an interactive light and sound installation based on cosmic ray data from IceCube. The installation, called Quasar 2.0: Star Incubator, was created by Toronto-based artists Jean Michel Crettaz and Mark-David Hosale. The structure, which includes fiber optics, reflective surfaces, and info screens, combines data from IceCube and real-time data gathered by sensors embedded around the exhibit.

The Wednesday evening event is part of a statewide program funded by WIPAC and the Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment.

It took more than a decade and the efforts of an international collaboration of scientists, engineers, and technicians to design, test, and build IceCube, which is now exploring the highest energy phenomena in the universe. The worldwide effort is supported by the National Science Foundation and rooted squarely in Wisconsin, with key partners at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and staff and suppliers from around the state.