Nucleiamo: smashing nuclei and firing protons with the public at Trento’s MUSE

06 October 2021

The postdoctoral researchers Samuel Giuliani and Pablo de Vera (some of the ECT* scientists participating in La Notte dei Ricercatori), with the science popularization activities and talking with the public, at the ECT* stand Nucleiamo.

On Friday September 24th, the whole Europe celebrated the great importance that science has in our society, by letting the researchers themselves explain their work to the general public at the European Researchers’ Night in many cities all along the continent. The research centres of the Autonomous Province of Trento did not miss this special occasion, and Museo delle Scienze (MUSE), Fondazione Bruno Kessler (FBK), Università di Trento and Fondazione Edmund Mach joined the SHARPER Night initiative (SHAring Researchers’ Passion for Engaging Responsiveness) to organise La Notte dei Ricercatori in the modern quarter of Le Albere, in Trento.

The ECT* was present at MUSE with the stand Nucleiamo, featuring many activities with which the scientists explained and illustrated their work to the general public. The different research lines (covering the internal structure of atomic nuclei, the synthesis of the different elements present on Earth inside the stars, the use of computational molecular physics to improve metrology, the connections between nanotechnology and black holes, or the interaction of energetic ions with biomaterials for their use in cancer therapy) were explained with the aid of audiovisual materials, including a poster relating and putting in context the different areas (see below), and videos explaining each topic in more detail.

Furthermore, the attention of the people was attracted with some scientific games, with which the attendees (especially the youngest ones) could enjoy synthesising some “elements” themselves, or helping “to cure a patient” with “energetic protons”. A homemade, “high technology”, cardboard particle accelerator was used to smash nuclei (made of magnetic balls) among each other, to study how the collisions produced their fusion or fission to yield new synthetic elements inside an “advanced” tupperware-particle-detector. The attendees also proved their aim by firing mock-X-ray photons (light ping-pong balls) to a patient model (made up by green and orange plastic glasses representing the healthy and malignant tissues), to discover how they scattered all around, being difficult to hit the tumour. Surprisingly, the ability of the participants seemed to increase greatly when firing fictitious protons (heavier marbles), simulating the physical processes occurring at the Trento protontherapy centre.

Both the Trentini attending the MUSE and the ECT* researchers had a lot of fun during La Notte dei Ricercatori, the former learning more about the locally made theoretical research on nuclear physics and related areas, and the latter having the chance to communicate their passion for science to the entire community.