Gwenhaël de Wasseige

Astrophysicist at the end of the World

I grew up looking at the stars, exploring and experimenting in the environment around me. I was keeping my eyes wide open to try to understand our World.

I am now a 26-year-old woman, PhD student in Astroparticle physics and proud member of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

I kept this habit of experimenting as I became a member of the international collaboration working on the IceCube detector. Our 1km^3 telescope is buried in the ice of the South Pole. Rather than looking for a source of light as our common sense suggests, IceCube detects neutrinos, elusive particles produced in some of the most energetic events occurring in our Universe.

This winter, I had the great opportunity to visit IceCube. I left Belgium on December 11th, direction: Antarctica!

After more than a week of travelling, I finally reached the South Pole. The first step on this ice desert is one-of-a-kind moment. The freezing wind warmed by a shining Sun mirroring on the snow offers a breathtaking landscape for the arriving passenger.

While my research focuses on low energy neutrinos produced by solar flares and gravitational wave events, my mission at the South Pole was to install a snow sensor. The snow is decreasing the signal perceived by IceTop, the surface detector of IceCube, causing big systematic uncertainties in its cosmic ray measurements. The bigger the snow layer is, the smaller will be the detected signal. I have developed, together with a team of the Interuniversity Institute for High Energies IIHE (ULB-VUB) and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA, a setup allowing automated measurements. Using a sonic sensor, we manage to provide daily measurements of the snow height above IceTop.

This system will be monitored during the austral winter before being extended to more IceTop stations.

I also took the opportunity of this trip to work on the 90 degrees South project that included several outreach activities dedicated to a broad public as well as primary and high-school students.

Teaming up with Wtnschp (VUB) and Inforsciences (ULB), we have organized a large greetings exchange between Belgian citizens and the scientists at the South Pole. We have received more than 600 postcards coming from everywhere in Belgium but also from all around the World. All these families got a postcard back, sent from the South Pole: a nice way to trigger interest and curiosity about the science community at the end of the World.

Another part of this 90 degrees South project (among many others) was an experiment contest for primary and high-school students. The challenge proposed to the students was to design an experiment answering the question “Belgium-South Pole: What is the difference?” More than 200 students have submitted bright and enlightened projects. I have performed three of them during my stay at the South Pole:  a novel technique to measure the Earth magnetic field, an electromagnet and a couple of experiments meant to solve some of the mysteries of water! This contest has ended with a large exhibition organized on the VUB campus in Etterbeek.

I am now back in Belgium, but the stars in my eyes will remain forever. I want more of this: more physics and more adventure. Scientists have an amazing life and I am proud to be one of them.