LEAD | Josh Willhite talks about blasting neutrinos from a particle accelerator in Illinois, through 800 miles of earth, to a detector placed not far from where he sits at the Sanford Underground Research Facility.
The irony is that every second he speaks, 62 billion of the subatomic particles pass through each of his thumbnails.
That's another way of saying neutrinos pass through everything we can see, and most things we can't. The smallest particle ever identified, they come from the sun and other stars, from nuclear power plants, and pass through everything we know of on their way to some other cosmic destination.
The Long-Baseline Neutrino Experiment would be a step toward wrapping finite human minds around the prehistoric, pre-earth origins, Big Bang-era particles. The $860 million project, split between the Sanford Lab and the particle accelerator in Illinois, would be funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.
How would the lab identify its neutrinos? With a 10,000-ton liquid argon detector, of course. Argon is a gas at room temperature, but this detector would cool it to a liquid, where the neutrinos could be detected through interactions in the liquid. Among other things, Willhite said the experiment is to "try and better understand the size and magnitude" of neutrinos.
Right now, that proposed detector would be plunked down near the old exhaust fans at the Oro Hondo mineshaft. From outside Willhite's window in the old Homestake Gold Mine administration building, it's a smudge of metallic coloring the green of the Kirk Canyon. But the experiment's boosters are hoping to raise as much as another $150 million, possibly in Europe, to situate the argon detector thousands of feet down in a mine shaft.
There, with the liquid argon detector shielded by a few thousand feet of earth, scientists could use it for additional experiments that can't be conducted on the surface.
Since the experiment would last an expected 20 to 40 years, they might have time to dabble.
The existence of neutrinos was predicted as early as 1930 and confirmed about 25 years later. But since they don't emit an electric charge, which would make them more detectable, little remains known about the particles. Raymond Davis, Jr. won the Nobel Prize in 2002 for researching neutrinos coming from the sun at none other than the Homestake Gold Mine.
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"The neutrino is the tiniest particle ever detected so far," said Andre Petukhov, a professor and head of the physics department at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. "And for that reason, neutrinos are considered to be one of the most important particles during the Big Bang."
"All discoveries in physics eventually lead to some practical consequence," he added. "Even if we cannot predict them at the moment."
If you can't get your head around all this, physicists working on the proposed experiment will be at two informational meetings later this month to talk about the project. The experiment itself will need to go through federal environmental studies — with an official public comment process — and get final approval by the U.S. Department of Energy before starting, possibly by 2017.
It's doubtful any of this matters to the neutrinos themselves, who will just continue to pass through Earth and its inhabitants on a grand cosmic sailing trip.