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See the Invisible with TRIUMF/UBC at AAAS

13 February 2012

The free public event, Family Science Days, will be held on Saturday and Sunday, February 18 – 19, 2012 at the Vancouver Convention Center as a part of the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). There will be a number of booths featuring fascinating demonstrations of science, and TRIUMF and UBC have teamed up to bring you something particularly unique: the opportunity to see the unseen forces that play a role in our everyday lives. From subatomic particles, to radiation, to magnetic fields, we invite you to pull back the curtain of the universe with us.

Cloud Chamber & Cosmic Rays

Cosmic rays are all around us. Originating from outer space, these particles pass through everything from earth’s atmosphere to our own bodies. Cosmic rays are, like every subatomic particle, invisible to the naked eye. However, with the help of a cloud chamber, it is possible to make the invisible visible.

Imagine grabbing a handful of sand and throwing it into a large body of water. Each grain of sand that hits the water interacts with it in a unique way, creating a trail singular to that grain of sand. Cosmic rays interact with a cloud machine in a similar fashion. Under the glass of the cloud chamber, there is a cloud of rubbing-alcohol vapour that is disturbed by each particle as it passes through. As the particle passes through the cloud, a trail unique to that particular particle is formed, allowing us to see the particle’s path.

The image above is of people looking at the cloud chamber in action.

Iron Filings & Magnetic Fields

On their own, iron filings are quite dull. Add a couple magnets, though, and you’ll be given the unique opportunity to view something that you encounter every day, but rarely see: magnetic fields.  

In order to see the magnetic field of a magnet, iron filings are sprinkled onto a piece of paper or Plexiglas, with a bar magnet underneath. As the iron filings are being dropped onto the surface, the invisible magnetic field of the magnet underneath the surface will dictate where each filing lands, creating a pattern. This pattern is a visual representation of the magnet’s magnetic field lines.

When you see the pattern, take note of how tightly packed together the lines of filings are, as this tells us about the magnetic force in that particular area of the magnet. The closer together the lines of filings are, the stronger the force of the magnetic field in that area.


Galileo Galilei pushed the boundaries of observational astronomy by improving upon the telescope, a device that allowed the viewer to cast their gaze to the stars in order to see things that had remained unseen for centuries. With his telescope, Galileo discovered four of Jupiter’s largest moons and championed for heliocentrism, which was a controversial topic at the time. At Family Science Days, you will have the opportunity to observe and interact with a telescope of exactly the same design as Galileo’s.

Particle Physics Workstation

The people working on the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN in Switzerland have defined their careers by trying to see the unseen. They are searching for the most elusive particle in all of history: the Higgs boson. The Higgs boson is crucial to our understanding of mass, because it is believed that after the Big Bang particles were massless until an interaction with the Higgs boson field. In order to search for the Higgs boson, scientists must try to recreate the very first moments of the universe, albeit on a small scale. Recently, scientists have come closer than ever before to discovering the Higgs boson, closer to peeling back the veil of the universe and seeing something that, truly, has never been seen before.

By using the particle physics workstation at Family Science Days, you will be able to explore a visual representation of the data output from ATLAS from a number of different perspectives.

Physics Photo Booth

After your time with the particle physics workstation, get your picture taken with a backdrop of ATLAS, one of the experiments that will allow us to uncover the Higgs boson. The photo used for the backdrop was taken during one of the phases of its construction. ATLAS, with its sheer size and technical ingenuity, is a modern marvel, the likes of which have never been seen before.


Though we are, regrettably, some years away from personalized hover cars and jetpacks, rest easy knowing that the base technology for hovering exists and has been implemented in at least a few ways, specifically in hovercrafts. Come and see a small-scale replica of a hovercraft and learn how hovercrafts use the invisible force of air pressure to keep themselves afloat.


As is the case with many things, some atoms cannot live forever. These atoms turn into lighter versions of themselves through the process of radioactive decay. Because we cannot see radiation (except in the form of light!), radioactive decay can only be detected with very sensitive devices. The time it takes for 50% of a collection of atoms to decay is characterized by the atom’s “half-life.” The half-life of an atom can range from nanoseconds to billions of years, depending on the isotope.

High-Speed Camera

Though there is much contention about how many frames per second (FPS) the human brain and eye can comprehend, there is no question that it is under 1000fps, which is the speed at which the high-speed camera records. At Family Science Days, watch a marble being dropped into sand turn into a meteorite colliding with the surface of a planet. This is made possible by recording the event with the high-speed camera and running it through a program on a laptop that slows it down, allowing for everyday, barely observable events to be transformed into amazing scenes shown from a unique perspective.


--Written by Jordan Pitcher, Communications Assistant