One minute with Sam Borer, intern on LArIAT

Fermilab intern Sam Borer recently got to experience zero gravity. Photo: Reidar Hahn

Fermilab intern Sam Borer recently got to experience zero gravity. Photo: Reidar Hahn

How long have you been at Fermilab?
I started here at the beginning of June. I’m a student at the University of Maine here for the SIST summer internship program.

What does a typical day look like for you?
I’m working on the LArIAT experiment, looking at how we can determine the difference between a photon and an electron in this type of detector. I’ve learned so much already — more than I’ve gotten out of a semester full of classes. But I haven’t had a typical day yet.

Right after starting here, you learned you had won the student astronaut competition hosted by the television show Xploration Outer Space, which sends the winner on a two-hour zero-gravity flight in Orlando, Florida. What was that like?
They surprised me in the IARC building. I turned a corner into the lunchroom, and there were a bunch of lights and cameras. I had no idea what was going on. It wasn’t until they turned off the camera that I realized I did actually win.

Why do you think you won?
I knew going in they were looking for something different. In the video application I explained that before I was a scientist, I was a professional dancer. That was my pitch: I wanted to go up so I could test out some dance moves to see if you can even do them in zero gravity.

How did you go from dancing to physics?
I’ve always liked science. I was always very imaginative, and that went well with dance — but it also went well with science. I was going to go to college for dance, but then I was in an accident and got hurt. In the end it turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me.

So what was the zero-gravity experience like?
We flew on the plane that NASA contracts. The entire interior is padded. They’ll pull really high Gs for about a minute. You lie on the ground, and it feels kind of like someone’s pouring cement on your chest. As you get up in altitude, you just start to get lighter and lighter. And suddenly you lift up off the floor, and you’re floating. You’ll go weightless for about 20 to 30 seconds. It’s the coolest experience ever. It’s something you really can’t describe in words.

What about the dance moves?
It turned out to be a lot more difficult than I thought. Even the tiniest movement can send you in a chaotic spiral. Some of the things I knew wouldn’t work: tap dancing — you need to be able to touch the floor.

What did you get out of the contest, apart from fun?
I wanted to be an astronaut since I was 9 years old, and this is a part of astronaut training. It was really good to have that validation that it’s something I can pursue and that other people think I might actually be able to do, too.