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A Physicist’s Dream: The Summer of Studying Subatomic Particles in Italy

Andrew Witchger is living the life of TV's popular Big Bang Theory show-with a few twists.

A physics major at Duquesne, he is the University's first student to be selected for a prestigious grant study program with the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institute for Nuclear Physics-Italy. From all applicants and schools in the country, he was the single candidate selected to study near Rome this summer, conducting experiments with a particle accelerator.

Like the characters on the Big Bang Theory, Witchger can discuss experimental and theoretical research in subnuclear, nuclear and astroparticle physics. What makes up the universe? How does gravity work? What is the nature of the invisible world?

Witchger excelled in nuclear physics, thermodynamics and quantum mechanics classes at Duquesne-while completing a computer sciences and mathematics minor. He gained an edge for the position by working with Dr. Fatiha Benmokhtar, visiting assistant professor of physics, in high energy/nuclear research. "This experience at Duquesne gave me the tools I needed to contribute to the experiment at the Italian lab," he said.

At Italy's oldest and largest nuclear facility, Witchger worked on The RICH Detector for the CLAS12 Spectrometer. The project involved building a system of light detectors sensitive enough to measure where a single particle of light (a photon) hits. Before another system based on this type of detector is built, it must be tested and refined for accuracy. Software was needed to analyze data and reconstruct how the light traveled.

"That's where I came in," said Witchger, who tested electronic systems and wrote code to analyze the tests. "Because the light being measured was the result of accelerating a sub-atomic particle to nearly the speed of light, the detectors needed to be very accurate," explained Witchger, who will continue his work with Benmokhtar, a collaborator in the RICH project.

"Andy is one of my best students and I didn't hesitate for a second to get him involved in my research projects in particle and nuclear physics during the spring semester of 2012," said Benmokhtar. "His contribution to detector tests in Italy was of a big importance to the success of the RICH project. I have no doubt that Andy has a promising future in this field."

But subatomic science is only one dimension of Witchger. Sure, he's the brain who built a computer from credit card-sized components, but he also performed for two years with Duquesne's ethnic folk ensemble, the Tamburitzans. Since the age of 12, Witchger lived on the road with his troubadour family of six, playing Irish folk music and dancing on stages in China, Europe and across the country. The oldest child, Witchger decided to give up the touring and "bus schooling" for college in 2010, at age 21.

So not all Big Bang Theory stereotypes apply to Witchger. "He's personable, polite and a great guy to be around," said Karen Prykull, assistant to the head of the Tamburitzans. "He's mature-and has a motorcycle."

Along with a mind for conducting subatomic analysis, writing complex software code and pondering questions of the universe.

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability. Follow Duquesne University on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.