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Carsten Rott appointed to Jack W. Keuffel Memorial Chair

Rott, who looks for signatures of dark matter with high-energy neutrinos, joins the Department of Physics & Astronomy through December 2025.  
Carsten Rott stands in the foreground. The background are green mountains.

PHOTO CREDIT: Courtesy of Carsten Rott

Carsten Rott at Tateyama, Japan

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Professor Carsten Rott, who will join the Department of Physics & Astronomy in early 2021, has been appointed to the Jack W. Keuffel Memorial Chair. Rott will hold the chair through December 2025.

“It’s such a great honor to be appointed, and I’m looking forward to my arrival at the U to begin my work,” he said.

The Jack W. Keuffel Memorial Chair was established to honor and continue the work of late Jack W. Keuffel, a professor and pioneer in cosmic ray research at the U from 1960-1974.

More about Rott

For as long as he can remember, Rott has been fascinated by the night sky, the stars, and the planets. As a child growing up in Germany, he could see the Orion nebula, the Andromeda galaxy, and star clusters. He wondered what these objects were and what else was in the night sky waiting to be discovered.

He combined his love of astronomy with learning computer programming and was fascinated by the ability to write computer programs to model biological systems, fluid dynamics, and astrophysics. By comparing the outcomes of his simulations, he could check to see if his intuition was correct or if he got the physics right, which was invaluable in training his logical thinking skills. “As a high school student, I spent many months trying to understand why my simulations of rotating galaxies would not maintain spiral arm structures or why my models of stars weren’t stable,” he said. Struggling with such questions made him want to understand the underlying phenomena.

Rott studied physics as an undergraduate at the Universität Hannover and went on to receive a Ph.D. from Purdue University in 2004. “Becoming a physicist has at times been a challenge, but it has broadened my horizons so much, and I’m extremely happy I decided to pursue a career in science,” he said.

High-energy neutrinos

His research is on understanding the origins of high energy neutrinos, which are subatomic particles similar to electrons, but with no electrical charge and a very tiny mass. Neutrinos are abundant in the universe, but difficult to detect because they rarely interact with matter. These particles originate from distant regions of the universe and can arrive on the Earth more or less unhindered, providing scientists with information about distant galaxies. High-energy neutrinos are associated with extreme cosmic events, such as exploding stars, gamma-ray bursts, outflows from supermassive black holes, and neutron stars, and studying them is regarded as a key to identifying and understanding cosmic phenomena.

“One of my main research focuses is to look for signatures of dark matter with high-energy neutrinos. By studying them, we can explore energy scales far beyond the reach of particle accelerators on Earth,” he said.

While most of his work is considered pure research and doesn’t have immediate applications, Rott did figure out a new way to use neutrino oscillations to study the Earth’s interior composition. He spent several months at the Earthquake Research Institute at the University of Tokyo to collaborate with researchers on the topic, and he hopes this new method can help scientists better understand and predict earthquakes.

IceCube Neutrino Telescope

Rott has been a member of the IceCube Neutrino Telescope since the start of the construction of the detector in 2005.  IceCube is the world’s largest neutrino detector designed to observe the cosmos from deep within the South Pole ice. The telescope uses an array of more than 5,000 optical sensor modules to detect Cherenkov light, which occurs when neutrinos interact in the ultra-pure Antarctic ice. When a neutrino interaction occurs, a faint light flash is produced, allowing them to be detected.

Approximately 300 physicists from 53 institutions in 12 countries are part of the IceCube Collaboration, which tries to solve some of the most fundamental questions of our time, such as the origin of cosmic rays, the nature of dark matter, and the properties of neutrinos.

The team of scientists has already achieved some amazing scientific breakthroughs with this telescope. For example, they discovered a diffuse astrophysical neutrino flux in 2014 and recently achieved the first step in identifying the sources of astrophysical neutrinos associated with a highly luminous blazar, which was discovered in 2018. A blazar is an active galaxy that contains a supermassive black hole at its center, with an outflow jet pointed in the direction of the Earth. Over the next years, the team looks forward to making more discoveries by observing the universe in fundamentally new ways.

Life in Korea

Before joining the U, Rott was invited to Korea to begin a tenure-track faculty position at Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU). “I was excited to be part of a university that had the vision and determination to become a world-leading university, and I was able to build one of the largest astroparticle physics efforts in Asia, while accomplishing many of my research objectives,” he said.

He enjoys Korean culture and life in Korea, which is very practical and straightforward. “In Korea, people like to get things done fast,” he said. “It’s great to get rapid feedback, for example, on a proposal. You know quickly if your proposal is funded or not.” Being based in Korea has allowed him to collaborate more closely on other projects, including the COSINE-100 dark matter experiment and the JSNS2 sterile neutrino search and the Hyper-Kamiokande neutrino program in Japan. He plans to spearhead initiatives to establish stronger ties between the U and leading universities in Asia.

Future research

Currently, the IceCube team is in the middle of preparing an upgrade to the IceCube Neutrino Telescope. This new telescope will be installed within two years in Antarctica. For the IceCube upgrade, Rott’s team has designed a more accurate camera-based calibration system for the Antarctic ice. Improved calibration will be applied to data collected over the past decade, improving the angular and spatial resolution of detected astrophysical neutrino events.

“The origin of high-energy neutrinos and any new phenomena associated with their production remains one of the biggest challenges of our time,” Rott said. “I’m extremely excited about correlating observations of high-energy neutrinos with other cosmic messengers. To establish any correlation, it’s essential that we can accurately point back to where neutrinos originated on the sky.”

Rott further explains, “We hope that the IceCube upgrade will be just the first step towards a much larger facility for multi-messenger science at the South Pole that combines optical and radio neutrino detection with a cosmic ray air shower array.”