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LEWISBURG, Pa. - Physicists are a step closer to understanding how the world works, thanks in part to the work of a Bucknell professor and her undergraduate students.

The first results were released in April from a 10-year experiment called MiniBooNE carried out at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory - or Fermilab - outside of Chicago. Sally Koutsoliotas, associate professor of physics, and almost a dozen of her students contributed to the study.

Ben Reiter '06, now teaches math to middle school students in Orefield, Pa., but in Summer 2003 he worked with Koutsoliotas at Fermilab.

Active and developing fields
"It does change your perspective," Reiter said. "You come to realize that the subjects you are learning - science, math, literature, it doesn’t really matter - those are active and developing fields. They are not some static thing that you learn about that has happened and it’s done."

MiniBooNE was designed to test some of the most fundamental ideas of how the universe works.

"In high energy physics, what we try to do is understand what the universe is made from, and how those bits and pieces interact with each other," Koutsoliotas said. "A quarter of these building blocks are neutrinos, so we want to understand neutrinos."

Universal building blocks
For more than 30 years, physicists’ understanding of the universal building blocks has been summed up in something called the Standard Model. Many experiments - which typically involve smashing high-energy particles to bits and measuring what’s produced - have all supported the Standard Model. One experiment, however, didn’t fit.

In the 1990s, a study done at Los Alamos National Laboratory produced startling results.

"Right now there are threes of everything, including three families of neutrinos," Koutsoliotas said. "If you are going to accept the Los Alamos result, there is a fourth kind of neutrino. Not only do you have a fourth one, you have a fourth one that doesn’t even behave like the others. People really didn’t like that."

Model - safe for now
MiniBooNE was designed to verify or refute the Los Alamos results. With the results just released this month, the Standard Model appears safe - at least for now.

"I guess it's a nice warm fuzzy feeling that our Standard Model is still intact," Koutsoliotas said. The finding does leave physicists puzzling over the Los Alamos results.

Work continues at Fermilab, with results of further experiments due out in the coming years.

Posted April 18, 2007