Wednesday, September 28, 2011

IN SEARCH OF THE NEUTRINO. All the news lately of subatomic particles appearing to be traveling faster than the speed of light itself recalls for Marti and me our first encounter with the Neutrino Hunters. In October 1996. In Pylos, Greece -- the town from which my maternal grandparents emigrated to the United States at the beginning of the last century.

We were on our first trip to Greece. Marti and I had arrived in Pylos that afternoon. At dinner in the Lykourgos Family Restaurant we encountered what I described in my journal as "a multinational scientific research team (Greeks, Germans, Russians and Americans) who were diving in the bay in search of evidence of theoretical subatomic particles called neutrinos. As explained to us by one of the Germans, who remained to drink a little more wine after his colleagues departed, the deep water in Navarino Bay is optimal for setting up what he described as a “star,” a large, floating aluminum frame that defines a specific diving area.”

I now realize that the "star" was a precursor to the titanium frame of a NESTOR (Neutrino Extended Submarine Telescope) used to detect neutrinos. Fifteen years ago I wrote, "The divers go to the bottom to take a sequence of readings over a period of several days – measurements from a precisely-controlled location in the water, thanks to the star – then come up with an evaluation. Their scientific strategy seems to depend on the fact that there is a dimunition of atmospheric conditions at extreme water depths. They believe that eliminating all that messy atmospheric interference may enable them to confirm the existence of neutrinos. Needless to say, this stuff is way over my head."

Partially folded titanium frame of a NESTOR "floor" (at NESTOR Institute, Pylos).
Apparently, neutrino research has come a long way since 1996. Wikipedia describes a neutrino as an "electrically neutral, weakly interacting elementary subatomic particle with a small but non-zero mass. Being electrically neutral, it is able to pass through ordinary matter almost unaffected, like a bullet passing through a bank of fog. The neutrino (meaning small neutral one) is denoted by the Greek letter ν (nu)."

According to The New York Times, "Neutrinos are among the weirdest denizens of the weird quantum subatomic world. Once thought to be massless and to travel at the speed of light, they can sail through walls and planets like wind through a screen door. Moreover, they come in three varieties and can morph from one form to another as they travel along . . ."

And to think, way back in the day Marti and I were instrumental in encouraging this fascinating research!