Back to News

New Faculty Focus: Brian Rebel

The particle physicist brings a focus on neutrinos to the Department of Physics.

by Katie Vaughn November 7, 2018

Brian Rebel

Title: Visiting Associate Professor of Physics

Hometown: Des Moines, Iowa

Educational and professional background: 

BA from Grinnell College (Physics and German), 1998; MA from Indiana University (Astronomy), 2000; PhD from Indiana University (Astrophysics), 2004.

Research Associate Fermi National Accelerator Lab, 2004-2009; Wilson Fellow Fermi National Accelerator Lab, 2009-2013; Scientist Fermi National Accelerator Lab, 2013-present. I currently hold a joint appointment between the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Fermi National Accelerator Lab.

How did you get into your field of research?

I intended to become an observational astronomer when I applied to graduate schools. The summer before I started classes at Indiana University, I worked for a professor in the High Energy Astrophysics Group because I wanted to try something different before looking through telescopes for the rest of my career. I worked on a project called MINOS, which was a search for neutrino oscillations using a man-made beam of neutrinos. I was hooked on the really interesting science of that project and ultimately became a particle physicist.

What attracted you to UW-Madison?

The quality of the students at UW-Madison and the resources of the university are both outstanding. The Physical Sciences Lab is a really unique resource and I very much look forward to collaborating with the engineers and technicians there as we work to build components for the future flagship neutrino experiment in the US, DUNE. I was also very impressed by WARF and the opportunities it enables for the faculty.

What was your first visit to campus like?

Cold. It was in early November and the weather was well into the transition from fall to winter. That didn’t bother me, though, as I have lived in colder places. As a graduate student, I spent a winter in Soudan, Minnesota, as I helped to build the MINOS detector.

What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with?

I hope they will develop a physics intuition that will help them better understand the universe around them. Whether the class is an introductory level or a graduate level course, the goal is the same — to help the students gain a better understanding of how the laws of physics are at work all around them.

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how.

Particle physics has a history of enabling major changes to improve the lives of people. The questions we ask about the universe often require us to develop new technologies to answer them. These are technologies that industry has no incentive to explore because there is no immediate application. However, the government does not require a profit be made when it funds basic research. That freedom allows us to develop new ideas that industry can later capitalize on with new applications. A major example is the development of super conducting wires. Particle physicists did this development to build powerful magnets used to accelerate particles to very high energies. That same technology is what enabled the development of MRI techniques in medicine. Similarly, particle accelerators have made the leap from the lab to medicine and industry and they are routinely used to fight cancer, make food safe and improve the durability of automobile tires. The drive to ask and answer really hard questions makes physicists push the limits of what is technically possible and the resulting solutions to our problems often improve people’s lives. 

What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties?

I study particles called neutrinos. There are three types of neutrinos and together they account for one quarter of the fundamental particles in the universe — i.e. the particles that are not made up of smaller constituents. They were created in the Big Bang and every cubic centimeter (about the size of the tip of your thumb) in the universe has 411 neutrinos from the Big Bang! Other neutrino sources include stars, the atmosphere, nuclear reactors and even bananas. The decays of potassium isotopes in bananas produce about 1 million neutrinos per day. Neutrinos are constantly streaming through our bodies, but they almost never interact. The chances of a neutrino interacting with matter are so small that you could aim a neutrino at the front of 6 trillion miles of lead (the material that is used to shield people from x-rays in the doctor’s office) and it would just exit the other side one year later.

Hobbies/other interests:

I enjoy cooking, baking and brewing beer. I also like to ride my bike and have done the week long RAGBRAI ride in Iowa several times.