The Universe on Ice

By Chris Mooney | November 17, 2010 4:32 pm

This is a guest post by Laurel Bacque, composed live with the help of fellow attendees of the National Science Foundation’s “Science: Becoming the Messenger” workshop as part of this previously announced competition. This post is based on research from the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, an international collaboration funded by the National Science Foundation.

Deep in the ice of the South Pole, researchers are studying mysterious particles from the edges of the universe. Trillions of these particles, called neutrinos, stream through your body every second, but little is known about them. A better understanding of high-energy neutrinos could give astrophysicists new insights into the fundamental workings of the universe.

icecube sensorTo help detect these invisible, nearly mass-less particles, researchers are building the IceCube detector at the South Pole, using an enhanced hot water drill to penetrate the ice to a depth of nearly two miles. There, sensors are deployed to record neutrino interactions in the ice. This research had to be conducted at the South Pole because scientists needed a large quantity of very clear, stable material (ice) to build the neutrino detector. (When a neutrino interacts with the ice, a burst of blue light is recorded by the specially designed detector. )

One special attribute of neutrinos is that they travel through the universe and the Earth with relatively few interactions–meaning, they can arrive here spawned from events that occurred in the very early days of the universe. So observing them yields unprecedented information about the life cycles of stars and the dark matter that scientists believe makes up 23 % of the universe.

In other words, studying neutrinos is important because they might hold information about violent events (exploding stars, black holes) in the universe, and can help us understand how it was formed. That’s why it’s worth it for scientists to go to the extreme of drilling miles beneath the remotest part of the Earth in search of the otherwise invisible.

By going there, we find out how we got to be here.


Comments (29)

  1. MK

    good teamwork. does this mean we have new fuel source on the horizon? how does this relate to cold fusion?

  2. John

    Nice to see NSF funding ‘high risk’ science like this! It will be interesting to see what unfolds from this scientific observatory.

  3. MK

    from a layperson who does not know alot about neutrinos. how does their activity relate to cold fusion? is there potential for harnessing a new energy source, either directly or catalyzing a new insight into the problem?

  4. serlie jamias

    Finally, neutrinos are more understandable and even interesting to me now – since we started this morning.

  5. MJ Murphy

    Thank you Ms. Bacque for a very interesting article; I had no idea such research exists in astrophysics; pretty cool-now interested in learning more.

  6. Oxana Petritchenko

    Thank you, great post! It definitely captured my attention, explained concepts clearly, and spiked my interest. I am now very curious to see where this research will lead.

  7. Beth

    Great post! Ms Bacque could only be a UW grad 😉

  8. Mark

    I heart neutrinos

  9. Albert Bakker

    #1/ #3 – Fuel source? cold fusion??? I mean really! How’s about first trying to extract information. Maybe you’d be best served by purchasing or if able to lend a little book “Neutrino” by Frank Close as an introduction.

  10. Chris James

    I think this is a really great experiment. It’s research into the fundamentals of the universe… how is that not amazing?!

  11. MLM

    What a neat global collaboration to find out about the origins of our universe!

  12. LB

    physics, technology, and the excitement of Antarctica…great project

  13. SM

    I think IceCube is VERY cool, in so many ways…

  14. Lesley

    It may be safe to say that this is the “coolest” thing to happen to the south pole yet :)

  15. Lolo

    Great post.
    Thank you for the clear explanation in writing. Cool Project!

  16. LG

    “By going there, we find out how we got to be here”– it’s like Antarctica is always about exploring, even 100 years after people got to the pole! How exciting.

  17. JMM

    Nice job describing a challenging topic!

  18. AA

    Wow, imagine thinking about black holes and exploding stars when you go to work every day. I wonder what these folks small talk about?

  19. David Whitbeck

    It is cool to see particle physics spotlighted. Especially a project that doesn’t involve an accelerator, but like astronomy, scientists play the role of observer in the biggest laboratory of them all: the cosmos. Since neutrinos very weakly interact with matter they can escape from cataclysmic events such as the supernova, they can tell us so much about these events. But it must be so challenging to detect neutrinos in the first place. Hats off to these scientists for facing such a difficult, but ground breaking challenge.

  20. Bob

    A needle in a haystack would be easier to find. Good hunting.

  21. My cousin, Sandy Miarecki, has told me about this project with which she has been involved for some time. It is amazing to me that this project can yield so many answers for us. Can’t wait to see more results.

  22. Voltaire

    A concise, clear overview of a complex area of science. Thank you.

  23. Laura

    Yahoo icemen! Bring on the knowledge!


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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