Cosmic-ray project attracts IOP prize at the Big Bang Fair

17 March 2015

A desktop experiment to verify an effect of special relativity gained 15-year-old school student Pratap Singh the Institute of Physics Prize at the Big Bang Fair

Big Bang Fair
Credit: National Science + Engineering Competition

The prize was among several awarded in the finals of the National Science and Engineering Competition at the fair, which was held at the NEC Birmingham on 11-14 March. More than 200 students aged 11-18 competed in the finals, demonstrating their projects to thousands of visitors who could also see exhibitions and take part in activities and workshops.

Singh, a student at The Perse School, Cambridge, used two Geiger-Müller tubes to detect cosmic-ray muons, which should not reach the Earth in detectable numbers unless time dilation occurs. He created a mathematical model for their arrival rate with and without time dilation, and using a Raspberry Pi and some statistical analysis, showed that they follow the model predicted by special relativity. His experiment was compact enough to fit inside a shoebox.

Singh said: ““I am absolutely thrilled to have won the IOP prize. I have always been very interested in physics and so when it came to the time for my research project – a year-long opportunity we get at our school to study any topic of our choosing – I of course wanted to do something in physics. I am especially happy that over the course of this project I was able to bring together the theory, create a mathematical model, and using just school physics lab equipment build an apparatus to observe relativistic time dilation.”

His prize of £500 was presented at the National Awards Ceremony on 12 March. The prize also includes a trip to a national physics-related activity. The IOP’s head of outreach and engagement, Johanna Kieniewicz, and the IOP’s regional officer for the Midlands, David Wilkinson, jointly judged the prize. Kieniewicz said: ”I’d like to congratulate Pratap Singh on winning the Institute of Physics prize with his outstanding project. He demonstrated remarkable creativity in his approach to the problem, bringing together theory grounded in robust science with practical ingenuity. The quality of submissions to the National Science and Engineering Competition was incredibly high. We hope that all of the students continue to engage with physics, whether in their studies, careers, or as part of our culture.”

A special prize to celebrate the International Year of Light (IYL) was also awarded at the fair. The Light Prize, to recognise excellence in the application of light to any aspect of science and engineering, went to Aoife Nash, a 15-year-old student at St Mary’s College, Derry. She investigated the use of salt to clarify muddy water to make it ready for sterilisation by sunlight.

The prize of £500 and a visit to the Diamond Light Source was sponsored by the Ogden Trust. Presenting Nash with her cash prize and certificate at the National Awards Ceremony was IOP honorary fellow Becky Parker. The IOP coordinates the national programme of IYL activities in the UK.

Beth Taylor, chair of the International Year of Light in the UK, said: “We’re thrilled that the Ogden Trust has generously supported the Light Prize and we were fascinated by the sheer breadth of light-related projects in this category. Projects showed imagination, creativity and fantastic promise from these young scientists and engineers but especially our winner Aoife Nash. During the International Year of Light, we hope that young people will be inspired to think more about light and its impact on daily life and the future of our world”.