Synopsis or brief article reporting on research or teaching highlights taking place within the department.

UConn’s Old Planetarium Gets a New Upgrade

After an extensive collaborative effort and restoration process by UConn faculty, facilities staff, and students, Connecticut’s oldest planetarium will soon be back in action.

Once used for education and outreach for UConn faculty, students, and community members, the planetarium fell into disuse in the last several years, but Department of Physics Assistant Professor-in-Residence Matt Guthrie has been working hard with skilled facilities staff, including CLAS Facilities Team Leader Brett DeMarchi, to bring this piece of UConn history back into working order.

The planetarium was built in 1954 and has served since as a hub for sharing astronomical information with UConn and surrounding communities. The late Professor Cynthia Peterson was the planetarium’s curator for many years; it was her favorite place on campus, and she regularly shared her enthusiasm for astronomy by hosting events there.

The original A1 Spitz Star and Planet Projector, used for over 50 years for teaching others about the wonders of the universe, is now on display in the Gant Science Complex along with a plaque in dedication to the planetarium’s long-time curator, Professor Cynthia Peterson.
The original A1 Spitz Star and Planet Projector, used for over 50 years for teaching others about the wonders of the universe, is now on display in the Gant Science Complex along with a plaque in dedication to the planetarium’s long-time curator, Professor Cynthia Peterson. (Contributed photo)

In 2022, when Guthrie first toured the facility with Physics Department Academic Assistant Dave Perry, they were not sure what they would find and felt it was a shame the facility had fallen into disrepair. With encouragement from fellow physics faculty members Jon Trump and then Department Head Professor Barry Wells, Guthrie decided to take the project on, and together with Perry, DeMarchi, and others, they have been slowly but surely bringing the venerable planetarium back into campaigning shape.

“When I first toured the facility, it was still my first year at UConn full-time and I was looking for a project to dedicate all my free time to,” Guthrie says. “From the start, as I was doing research about it and learning more about Cynthia, I felt a sense of responsibility that if I was going to fill at least part of the hole that was left after she retired, we needed the proper recognition for everything that she had done, especially with the planetarium.”

The first time DeMarchi walked into the dome, he says it was like stepping back in time:

“It was almost pitch black and the antique projector was covered in dust — a unique piece of history to marvel at from a time when technology was much simpler!”

DeMarchi says a previous project study with a larger scope had a budget that was unfeasible, but he had some ideas to help keep the costs down while still freshening up the facility without major renovations to the existing structure. A new proposal was submitted to CLAS, accepted, and with funding, the project moved ahead.

Guthrie wanted to be sure the history of the planetarium was preserved, so, in the process of clearing out the facility to make way for new equipment, the team kept whatever they could for posterity, including the original A1 Spitz star and planet projector.

“We put the old projector on display in the physics department to make sure that we are not rewriting the history of the planetarium. That has been the guiding light for how I approach this project. We did buy a new projector, but we’re not changing the internal structure of the building,” says Guthrie.

Shortly after starting this project, Guthrie also started working on the UConn Observatory and both projects have kept him very busy, but he says he is glad to be able to dedicate the time to get these resources back up and running for the department and community.

Guthrie also has student help, including Danya Alboslani (CLAS) ’24 who has helped with both renovation processes.

Alboslani first got involved as a sophomore wanting to learn more about the planetarium and observatory that no one seemed to have details about,

“I wanted to get more information about the planetarium on campus. UConn is a great school with astronomy professors who do amazing work, so if we have a planetarium and an alleged observatory, why don’t we use them?”

Alboslani connected with Guthrie and says working with him on the restoration projects has been amazing,

“Ever since I first contacted him, he’s made me feel very involved in the entire process. Professor Guthrie went out of his way to keep me updated on everything. I helped to write the memorial plaque about Professor Peterson — also a woman in STEM and UConn’s first women physics professor.”

Sealing up the dome and making the facility waterproof once again took a lot of effort, says DiMarchi. Thanks to the extensive collaborative efforts with UConn Facilities Operations, the planetarium is almost ready for action again.
Sealing up the dome and making the facility waterproof once again took a lot of effort, says DiMarchi. Thanks to the extensive collaborative efforts with UConn Facilities Operations, the planetarium is almost ready for action again. (Contributed photo)

A tricky issue was the planetarium’s 16-foot dome, which had to be resealed, but once that was resolved, Guthrie said the interior work could go ahead. Though it has been a slow process, Guthrie says the end is in sight. The internal painting was completed in January and the external painting will be done as soon as the weather warms up.

DeMarchi says the team is very appreciative of the extensive collaborative efforts from UConn Facilities Operations.

“Every Facilities Shop Supervisor that I contacted was on board to assist. Special thanks to Nate Bedard of Interior Renewals for his help with project coordination and flooring. Chris Gisleson and his team put a lot of effort into sealing the exterior of the dome. Jon Cooke researched the correct reflective paint needed for the interior of the dome and his team painted the structure. Jennifer Peshka provided testing and compliance guidance throughout. CLAS Shared Services student workers Cole Shillington (CLAS) ‘24 and Alex Gervais (CAHNR) ‘24 were a big help with various tasks that came up.”

Though they don’t have a firm launch date yet, Guthrie hopes they will be up and running by summertime. The team plans to install carpeting and purchase new chairs soon. Guthrie says they removed the old projector platform, which was about six feet in diameter, and Perry and Senior Machine Shop Engineer Machinist Ray Celmer are working to make a sturdy stand that will have a small 18-inch footprint which will allow for more flexibility and accessibility in the space.

“Newer planetariums are structuring their seating charts as if there is a front of the building, and that’s where they project the main action of the show, where other things can happen around you,” Guthrie says. “We have the possibility of moving around to make it so that there is a front of the room. That depends on what we want to do and how the building evolves to meet our needs. I wanted to leave that possibility open.”

When deciding on what new projector to order, Guthrie says he chose a company that specializes in portable planetarium projectors, because other than being the oldest planetarium in the state, this is likely the state’s smallest permanent planetarium.

The planetarium’s new projector comes equipped with around 100,000 premade shows and makes it easy for users to design their own shows, so physics students and faculty can share their research and produce educational content for classes or outreach events.
The planetarium’s new projector comes equipped with around 100,000 premade shows and makes it easy for users to design their own shows, so physics students and faculty can share their research and produce educational content for classes or outreach events. (Contributed photo)

“I went with this projector model because it’s perfect for the size of our dome. The new projector gives users access to around 100,000 pre-made shows, and a bonus is the software is easy to learn so users can write their own planetarium shows. What I’m hoping is that interested astronomy students will be able to lead outreach events with shows they have designed themselves and if they want to get involved it will be lower stress to learn how to use the projector within this cool piece of UConn history.”

Physics Ph.D. student Kelcey Davis is eager for the facility to open and says the astrophysics graduate students and faculty are all very passionate about what they do and are excited this project will provide the opportunity to engage with the public.

“I saw the projector for the first time just a few days ago and have driven it once. It’s operated by a video game controller, so it helps to be a nerd!” says Davis.

Davis works with the James Webb Space Telescope and hopes to develop shows that break down the big discoveries the telescope has made since first light and make them digestible to a broader audience.

“I’m excited to showcase some of the research I and others in the department are doing. NASA has come out with some cool visuals, and I’d love to share them. A great example is the flight to ‘Maisie’s galaxy,’ the most distant galaxy in the Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science Survey (CEERS), which I work on. The light from this galaxy traveled 13.4 billion light years to reach us.”

Guthrie also has ideas for shows: for example, a simulated rocket launch. The projector can show the flight through clouds and the atmosphere and once the sound system is installed, viewers can feel what it’s like to blast off. Guthrie says he is planning to hold at least one show per week once everything is up and running, as long as the demand is there.

“What I once thought I wouldn’t be able to see before I graduate is now slowly becoming a reality,” says Alboslani. “With Professor Guthrie leading the restoration of the planetarium and observatory, I know that he will make an impact on the community and the university for years to come.”

Guthrie is excited for the future with both the observatory and the planetarium back in action.

“The observatory has incredible potential for completely changing the way that we do astrophysics research at UConn and the planetarium is completely different, but also super exciting. I can’t wait to see what this building is capable of.”

The project was made possible thanks to funding from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The Planetarium schedule will be updated with events once the facility is up and running. You can also keep up with events via Instagram.


Physics Faculty Work to Improve Accessibility and Destigmatize Disability Across CLAS

About 20% of UConn students are supported by the Center for Students with Disabilities. The true percentage of students who need help is even higher. With so many students who require diverse ways of learning, how can faculty make sure their teaching is adequate, effective and inclusive for all students? In order to address this situation, CLAS has supported the Accessibility Fellowship Program during the 2022-2023 academic year with the goal to study disability and improve the accessibility situation at UConn and generally in higher education. Indeed, research shows that these students can perform at the highest standards in the classroom and in research, if they are given appropriate conditions to do so. One of the fellows in this program was our Dr. Erin Scanlon, Assistant Professor in-Residence at the Avery Point regional campus. The Center for Students with Disabilities makes a difference by addressing aspects related to, e.g., submitting assignments or taking tests. This is important but not enough. Instructors can make an even bigger difference at a much earlier stage, before submitting homework or taking tests, namely while the students learn in the classroom. Small changes in the classroom teaching can significantly improve the performance of the students. Which small changes can faculty implement? A lot is known about this thanks to the research of Dr. Scanlon and other scholars in Physics Education Research (PER) who study the learning needs of students with special needs. For more information on this important topic see the UConn Today news article

The Mirion Technologies Inc. – UConn Physics Partnership

Mirion representatives meeting with UConn physics grad students
Fig. 1: Dr. James Zickefoos (black shirt) and Dr. Patrick McLeroy of the Mirion Technologies Inc. posing in front of Zimmerman’s setup for his senior Honor Thesis at the LNS at Avery Point, and discussing with LNS graduate students Sarah R. Stern and Deran K. Schweitzer possibilities for employment at Mirion Technologies, Inc.

Mirion Technologies, Inc. (https://www.mirion.com) formerly Canberra Inc., located in Meriden, CT, a worldwide leading company for manufacturing of electronics and nuclear detectors, established a partnership with our Physics department. In this partnership between our Physics department and a local industry, our students are encouraged to apply to spend a summer internship in the “real world” setting of a local industry of Connecticut. Indeed, our first senior undergrad student Mr. Nicolas Zimmerman (UConn-BSc ‘23) was hired by Mirion Technologies Inc. as a non destructive analyses (NDA) specialist. We look forward to future students who will follow the trail blazed by Nicolas to contribute to the development of local high-tech industry and the very economy of our state.


On February 6, 2023, Dr. James Zickefoos and Dr. Patrick McLeroy of the Mirion Technologies Inc., visited the Laboratory for Nuclear Science (LNS) at Avery Point, that is directed by Professor Moshe Gai (https://astro.uconn.edu). In Fig. 1 we show them posing in front of Zimmerman’s setup for his senior Honor Thesis. They discussed with our graduate students Sarah R. Stern and Deran K. Schweitzer possibilities for employment at Mirion Technologies, Inc. It is interesting to note that Dr. Zickefoos was the graduate student of the late Professor Jeffrey Schweitzer who was hired in 1997 by Professor Moshe Gai as a Research Professor doing research at Gai’s LNS lab; further solidifying the strong bond between our department and Mirion Technologies.


Research of Professor Trallero’s group featured in Advances in Engineering

A recent publication by Geoffrey Harrison, Tobias Saule, Brandin Davis, and Carlos Trallero from the Department of Physics, University of Connecticut is featured in Advances in Engineering. The publication presents a novel method for mitigating the bit-depth limit by increasing the phase precision of the Spatial Light Modulators (SLMs). The technique is based on adding irrational linear slopes in addition to the desired phase to increase the device’s effective bit-depth through an effect similar to volume averaging. The research is published in Applied Optics.

Spatial light modulators (SLMs) are devices that can modulate properties of light waves, such as phase, amplitude and polarization. SLMs are extensively used in numerous applications, including data storage, material processing and optical microscopy. With the widespread application of SLMs, the need to address the bit-depth and spatial resolution problems common to most SLMs is urgent.

The publication by Prof. Trallero’s group presented a technique for overcoming the bit-depth limitations of SLMs and verified it experimentally. The authors expressed confidence that the presented method could be used to gain multiple orders of magnitude with more precision beyond what was measured and obtained in their study.

About Advances in Engineering: Advances in Engineering ensures that the results of excellent scientific research are rapidly disseminated throughout the world, in a fashion that conveys their significance for advancing scientific knowledge and developing innovative technologies. Content is mainly targeted to an educated audience of engineering and physics students, scientists, and professors. Engineering fields covered are Chemical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Materials Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, Civil Engineering, Nanotechnology Engineering as well as General Engineering (aerospace Engineering, communication Engineering, computer Engineering, Agricultural Engineering, and Industrial Engineering).

UConn STARs Visit Hartford High School

The UConn STARs visited Hartford High School on May 8th and 11th, 2023. We visited junior engineering students in the classroom of Mrs. Melissa Adams and the high school football team lead by Coach Jackson. We taught them all about quantum mechanics, solar telescopes, gravity, and of course electricity and they taught us as well. We had a blast with these bright young scientists in the making!

The UConn STARs program is for undergraduate students in physics, aimed to recruit and retain students from historically excluded groups in physics (including gender identity, sexual orientation, race, socioeconomic status, first generation status, documented status, disability status, as well as additional categories). We hold regular meetings throughout the academic year to build community, offer academic and advising submit, as well as professional development opportunities. Each Spring, we visit a local classroom in an under-served community to inspire the next generation of STARs.

UConn Physics showing strong at the 2023 APS March Meeting

This year, international conferences have begun to come back into their pre-pandemic form. For the American Physical Society’s annual March Meeting, it was bigger than ever with over 12,000 participants in the world’s largest meeting ever devoted to physics. UConn showed strong as graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, research scientists, and faculty researchers attended the meeting in Las Vegas March 5-10 and showcased their newest results. The team rolled in deep and gave diverse presentations to an international audience on many topics in condensed matter physics, ranging from high-fidelity electronic structure calculations and material modeling, synthesis and characterization of new materials with competing states, advances in industrial science related to advanced manufacturing, synchrotron-based investigations of correlated materials, nanoscale magnetic imaging studies, the development of new cryogenic instrumentation, twistronic effects, vortices in topological materials and circuit-based quantum information science. See you next year!

From left to right: Jacob Pfund, Bochao Xu, Joshua Bedard, Ilya Sochnikov, Gayanath Fernando, Jacob Franklin, Jason Hancock, Donal Sheets, Kaitlin Lyszak
Not pictured: Krishna Joshi, Guang Chen (MSE), Jorge Chavez, Priya Sharma, Alexander Balatsky, Pavel Volkov.

The Milky Way Laboratory Contributes to Art Exhibit at the University of Hartford

Prof. Cara Battersby’s researcMilky Way Lab at UHart Art Exhibith group, the Milky Way Laboratory, was invited to collaborate with Genevieve de Leon, the 2022-23 Koopman Distinguished Chair in the Painting Department at the University of Hartford, for an exhibition focused on the intersection between the Maya calendrical cycles and scientific studies of the cosmos.

From the Milky Way Laboratory, H Perry Hatchfield, Jennifer Wallace, Dani Lipman, and Samantha Brunker contributed scientific figures that are displayed as part of the exhibition.  These figures demonstrate the ongoing research focused on understanding the universe around us through the use of data and scientific analysis.  These figures balance well with Genevieve de Leon’s original, large-scale paintings of constellations in the Maya Zodiac which were created in a methodical, focused way similar to how large-sky surveys are observed.  Genevieve has studied Maya timekeeping extensively, and, through this exhibit, focuses on the intersection of various systems of knowledge.

Additionally, the exhibition includes multimedia work made by indigenous artists in the Native Youth Arts Collective and students at the Hartford Art School which focus on personal connections with the night sky.

Milky Way Lab at UHart Art Exhibit - Orion

Milky Way Lab at UHart Art Exhibit - GalleryMW Lab UHart Art Exhibit - group2

The exhibit, “To Order the Days/Para Ordenar Los Días”, is located in the Donald and Linda Silpe Gallery at the University of Hartford, and will be available from February 23, 2023, to March 25, 2023.

More information can be found at:


Post written by Dr. Samantha Brunker

Prof. Jonathan Trump interviewed by The Conversation about JWST Discoveries

The Conversation interviewed Prof. Jonathan Trump about his recent work with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), with an article and podcast interview available at this link. The interview includes discussion of Prof. Trump’s recent journal paper that used spectroscopic observations from JWST to understand the chemical enrichment of galaxies in the early Universe.

Super BigBite Spectrometer Era Begins in Hall A at Jefferson Lab

The first two experiments using the newly constructed collection of apparatus known as the Super BigBite Spectrometer were completed from Oct. 2021-Feb. 2022 in Jefferson Lab’s Experimental Hall A. Data were collected that will determine the neutron’s magnetic form factor (GMN) in a previously unexplored regime of momentum transfer Q2 up to 13.6 (GeV/c)2 with unprecedented precision. Form factor measurements at these energies are sensitive to the structure of the neutron at the sub-femtometer scale, and can resolve features of the neutron’s charge and current distributions at length scales approximately 20 times smaller than the size of a proton. These two completed experiments were the first in a family of precision studies of proton and neutron form factors at high momentum transfer using the SBS apparatus that will occupy the floor of Hall A through 2024. Professor Andrew Puckett’s group plays a leading role in the SBS collaboration (and the group is looking for several new graduate students to work on this exciting and high-impact program!).

Precision high momentum-transfer nucleon form factor measurements are extremely technically challenging, requiring several major innovations in detector technology and high-performance data acquisition and analysis. The GMN set of experiments achieved the first large-scale deployment and operation of Gas Electron Multiplier (GEMs) detectors in the high-luminosity, high-radiation, high-background-rate environment in Hall A. The GEMs were used in this set of experiments for tracking high-energy electrons through the BigBite Spectrometer, which was designed for detecting, tracking, and identifying scattered electrons with large angular and momentum acceptance at high luminosity. Given the large channel count and the high occupancy of the BigBite GEMs (approximately 42,000 readout strips with up to 30-40% of these firing in every triggered event), the SBS GMN run produced 2 petabytes of raw data (or typically about 1 GB/s during beam-on conditions). This is roughly 5 times as much raw data produced in four months of beam time in Hall A as the previous 25 years of Hall A running combined. Charged particle tracking in this extreme high-background environment is also extremely challenging, and UConn developed the software infrastructure and algorithms to do so with high performance and efficiency. The UConn group was one of the most actively involved in the preparation and execution of the experiment, developed the Monte Carlo simulation, event reconstruction and data analysis software, and is now leading the analysis of the collected data using Jefferson Lab’s scientific computing facilities. Two UConn Ph.D. students, Provakar Datta and Sebastian Seeds, will write their doctoral dissertations on the analysis of the SBS GMN dataset.

Projected Q2 coverage and precision of actually collected SBS GMN data
Fig. 1: Projected Q^2 points and expected precision of the data for the neutron’s magnetic form factor obtained from the SBS GMN run during Oct.-Feb., 2021-2022

Figure 1 shows the collected Q^2 points for the extraction of GMN and the projected accuracy based on the data obtained, compared to existing data, selected theoretical models, and the projected Q2 coverage and precision of a measurement in Hall B with similar physics goals, but with larger systematic uncertainties from qualitatively different sources. The measurement of neutron form factors in the SBS-GMN experiment is based on the so-called “Ratio Method”, in which quasi-elastic electron-neutron and electron-proton scattering are measured simultaneously in scattering on a deuterium target (a deuterium nucleus is a weakly bound state of a single proton and a single neutron). By simultaneously detecting electron-neutron and electron-proton coincidence events in elastic kinematics, the ratio of electron-neutron and electron-proton scattering cross sections is determined with very small uncertainties. Combined with the existing knowledge of the electron-proton scattering cross section, the free neutron cross section can be extracted rather precisely.

To carry out this measurement, the SBS Collaboration constructed a large-acceptance Hadron Calorimeter (HCAL) consisting of large modules of many alternating layers of iron and plastic scintillator, which detects both protons and neutrons in the momentum range of these measurements with very high (and nearly identical) efficiencies, leading to much smaller systematic uncertainties compared to previous measurements of this type. Scattered electrons are detected in the BigBite spectrometer, and the scattering angles and momentum of the electron, as well as the location of the interaction vertex, are reconstructed from the precisely measured tracks of ionization they leave in the BigBite GEMs. Under the assumption of elastic scattering on quasi-free protons or neutrons, the scattered neutron or proton must carry all the energy and momentum transferred from the electron in the hard collision, allowing us to predict the location where the protons or neutrons should be detected in HCAL. To identify whether the scattering occurred on a proton or neutron, the scattered protons are given a small vertical deflection by the SBS dipole magnet so that they are well separated from the scattered neutrons by the time they are detected in HCAL.

Figure 2: Difference between the vertical coordinate of the particle detected by the SBS hadron calorimeter and its predicted position from the measured electron kinematics in BigBite, assuming (quasi-) elastic scattering.

Figure 2 shows a comparison between real data from the SBS-GMN experiment obtained at Q2 = 3 GeV2 and the Monte Carlo simulation of the experiment, which includes the full details of the detector geometry and response, and the physics of quasi-elastic scattering of electrons by bound protons and neutrons in the liquid deuterium target, showing the clear separation between protons and neutrons based on magnetic deflection of the protons before they are detected by the SBS Hadron Calorimeter (HCAL), and the low level of background (at this Q2) from processes other than quasi-elastic scattering, demonstrating a very good understanding of the detector at such an early stage of the analysis.


The example event distributions shown below were obtained at an incident electron beam energy of 6 GeV and Q2 = 4.5 GeV2:

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Figure 2 (above) shows the invariant mass distributions for reconstructed electrons in BigBite, from the hydrogen (left) and deuterium (right) targets, before and after applying cuts on the angle between the reconstructed momentum transfer direction and the reconstructed scattering angle of the nucleon (proton or neutron) detected in the SBS hadron calorimeter (HCAL). The hydrogen distribution shows a clear peak at the proton mass corresponding to elastic scattering, and the angular correlation cut removes most of the inelastic background, while keeping most of the events in the elastic proton peak. The deuterium distribution is “smeared” by the Fermi momentum of the bound nucleons in deuterium, and the distributions of events passing the angular correlation cut under the hypothesis that the detected nucleon is a proton (red) or neutron (blue) illustrate the relatively clean selection of quasi-elastic scattering and rejection of most inelastic events using the SBS dipole magnet and hadron calorimeter.

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Figure 3 (above) illustrates the method for nucleon charge identification using the SBS dipole magnet and the SBS hadron calorimeter. The plot shows the difference in vertical position between the detected nucleon at HCAL and the expected position predicted from the reconstructed electron kinematics assuming elastic (or quasi-elastic) scattering. The distributions are shown for hydrogen and deuterium targets for three different SBS magnetic field settings (magnet off, 70% of maximum field, 100% of maximum field). The hydrogen distributions show a single peak corresponding to elastic electron-proton scattering, that moves as the SBS magnetic deflection is varied. The deuterium distribution with field off shows a single nucleon (proton plus neutron) peak, smeared by Fermi motion. The deuterium distributions with SBS field on show a clear separation into proton (deflected) and neutron (undeflected) peaks, with protons undergoing the same average deflection as seen with the hydrogen target.

Prof. Jonathan Trump Interviews about the James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope released its first science observations on July 12 with much fanfare and excitement across the globe. UConn Physics Professor Jonathan Trump is part of the Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science collaboration that was awarded some of the first observations on the transformative new space telescope.

Prof. Trump was interviewed by several local media outlets, including NPR CT, WILI AM, and the Waterbury Republican-American, about the new James Webb Space Telescope observations and his research goals for the telescope. UConn Today also featured a story about the early JWST observations and scientific findings produced by Prof. Trump’s research collaboration.