Cloquet teen’s science project to be publishedKatrina Korman will be listed as a co-author to be published in the scientific journal Physical Review. The article detals how the rate of cosmic rays reaching Earth varies with the seasons.
By: Steve Kuchera, Duluth News Tribune
Katrina Korman wasn’t planning on specifically looking at cosmic rays when she started thinking about her high school sophomore science fair project two years ago.
“I did know I wanted to do something with space,” said the Cloquet High School 18-year-old, who had previously researched the effects of sudden decompression on plants — simulating what could happen on a spaceship.
It turned out that Korman’s project was a cut far above most.
So much so that Korman will be listed as co-author on a paper being prepared for publication in the scientific journal Physical Review. The paper details research that grew out of Korman’s project looking at how the rate of cosmic rays reaching Earth varies with the seasons.
“I’m honored to get to work with all these high-end scientists,” Korman said.
To help Korman develop a new idea, her mentor, Cindy Welsh, put her in touch with University of Minnesota Duluth physics professor Alec Habig. He suggested an examination of whether the MINOS detector in the Soudan Underground Mine was recording seasonal variations of cosmic rays.
As Habig put it, when cosmic rays hit air molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere, “They knock the snot out of some air and make a shower of particles.”
Mesons are one type of particles created. If the mesons hit more air molecules, their journey to the Earth’s surface ends. But if they avoid collisions, they decay into smaller particles called muons, which will reach the surface. Scientific belief was that more muons would reach the surface during the summer — when the air is warmer and less dense — than during the winter.
But no one had looked to see whether MINOS was registering such a variation. The detector was built to study neutrinos, a different type of subatomic particle. To better see neutrinos, the detector was built far underground to shield it from cosmic rays.
“But we still see about one cosmic ray every two seconds,” Habig said.
“We talked about it and decided I would look at the number of muons you get in the summer versus the winter,” Korman said. “They had a few years of records — enormous amounts of data to be sorted through, then put into charts and graphs. There was no way you could manually look through all that data.”
So Korman and Habig wrote a computer program to sort the data.
“We found that there are more muons hitting the Earth in the summer because the air is less dense,” Korman said.
Korman worked on the project for months and took her findings to the state science fair. She was one of 11 students honored for their science projects by the Minnesota Department of Education Scholars of Distinction program last year.
“She’s a really hard worker, involved in a lot of things,” Welsh said.
A member of the National Honor Society, Korman is also a three-sport athlete. She also pitches for the Cloquet-based Minnesota XPlosion U-18 girls fastpitch team.
Korman plans to attend the University of St. Thomas, where she will not compete in sports.
“I’m going to college for an education, not to play sports,” she said.
But she hasn’t a clue yet what major she’ll pursue.
“I’ve done all this in science, but my strong point is English,” she said. “Go figure.”
After Korman demonstrated that MINOS did record seasonal variations in muons reaching Earth, one of Habig’s graduate students, Eric Grashorn, took the research further and incorporated it into his Ph.D. dissertation.
“We started working on a paper for Physical Review to explain all these details Katrina had started and Eric elaborated on,” Habig said. “She’s helping us edit our paper. Having her read the gobbledy-gook we put out and say: ‘Wait a minute. I know the problem and you’re not saying it right’ is very, very helpful.”