Kenneth Gibbs talks high-energy at ‘Meeting of the Minds’

Energy invisible to the human eye is falling to the planet’s surface in a “shower” of non-harmful radiation that only high-tech sensors can detect.

“The Earth’s atmosphere is part of our detection medium,” said Kenneth Gibbs, who has a p.h.D. in physics.

Gibbs spoke about his research and book “The High Energy Universe” to a room full of people at the Orcas Senior Center as part of its “Meeting of the Minds” lecture series on Jan. 2.

His 30-year career was devoted to the detection, exploration and creation of technology built to observe teraelectronvolts (TeV), which are a kind of super high energy. One TeV is equivalent to 670 billion AAA batteries, Gibbs said, and if you were to stack those batteries (positive to negative sides) it would circumnavigate the Earth 740 times.

He explained that certain radio wavelengths can be observed from the ground but the unseen energy that he and his fellow astrophysicists are interested in is beyond waves visible to the human eye, even beyond ultraviolet. They are gamma and cosmic rays.

Gibbs contributed to the design, construction and operation of the world’s largest ground-based cosmic ray detectors – including the Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System (VERITAS) in Arizona and the Pierre Auger Observatory in Argentina.

Cosmic rays are positively charged nuclei that are produced by galactic events like supernovas. When these high-radiation particles come in contact with another particle – like those in the Earth’s atmosphere – it creates more energy and produces a “shower” on its way to the surface of the planet. Where those energy showers fall to earth is where they’re detected by sensors.

An audience member asked Gibbs why it matters that high-energy radiation from space is studied.

“Why do we care about doing any astronomy or any basic science? Because we’re curious beasts,” he answered. “This is very basic science. It’s how the universe is put together.”

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