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Astroparticle physics

Faces of Physics: a HAWC eye on the sky

02 Jun 2016

“A HAWC eye on the sky” takes you on an audiovisual tour of a striking new astrophysics facility in Mexico. The High-Altitude Water Cherenkov (HAWC) gamma-ray observatory – which was inaugurated last year – is designed to catch a glimpse of some of the most extreme events in the cosmos. Located near the peak of the extinct Sierra Negra volcano, HAWC cuts a spooky image against the Mexican countryside, comprising 300 giant silver barrels with yellow tops that are filled with water.

The film is narrated by Adiv González Muñoz, a HAWC researcher with a passion for time-lapse photography. González’s images are combined with stunning drone footage of the site and portraits taken by the film’s producer Lucina Melesio. González explains how photodetectors in the water barrels are used to detect Cerenkov light generated by charged particles travelling faster than the speed of light. These energetic particles are created when gamma rays from distant sources interact with the Earth’s atmosphere to create showers of secondary radiation that rain down on the planet’s surface. Astrophysicists study this radiation to pinpoint and better understand energetic events in the universe such as active galactic nuclei (AGN).

González, who is based at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City, says that one of the best things about working at HAWC is the opportunity to escape from the urban environment. “In the cities it’s becoming really hard to see stars. But when you are [at HAWC] with no clouds, seeing the stars, your mind gets full of inspiring ideas,” he says. That sense of wonder is something that inspires González in both his scientific research and his photography.

HAWC is a bi-national project run by Mexico and the US that is helping to raise the profile of Mexico among the global astronomy community. It is located on the same extinct volcano as another Mexico–US facility, the Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT), which began its early science runs in 2013. You can read more about the HAWC and LMT facilities in the Physics World special report on Mexico.

“A HAWC eye on the sky” is the third film in our Faces of Physics series – a collection of short films about the lives of people working in physics, exploring their motivations and the impact of their work.

We will be publishing more films in the Faces of Physics series throughout 2016. By telling personal stories, we hope to show that physics is an ordinary activity that can lead to an extraordinary array of careers. To find out more about the social side of physics, take a look at the March 2016 issue of Physics World, a special edition about diversity issues in physics. Find out how to access that issue here.

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