The South Pole conjures up images of a godforsaken frozen wasteland. Any mention of the earths’ bottom end makes me think of those awful penguin movies – the ones that are supposed to teach us the true value of family. In reality those lecherous penguins hook up with a new squeeze every year. That isn’t
monotony monogamy. Its a wasteland full of tarty birds.
Its also a white back drop for intrepid teams of wanna be documentary film makers pushing their bodies, minds and souls to the absolute limit with some ridiculous challenge like pulling a year’s worth of supplies over thousands of kilometres of ice on foot. Why Oh Why?
Prince Harry recently completed such a mission for charity. What a guy! He gets naked and contributes to worthy causes. It would be fab if he could do both simultaneously but sadly there was scant opportunity for strip billiards on this trek.
Tarty birds and Prince Harry make for a winning combination but there’s much more to the South Pole. There’s some seriously big and mind blowing science happening down there.
The South Pole is (fittingly enough) home to the Ice Cube. I’m not talking about the crazy mofo rapper/actor. Rather it is the world’s largest neutrino detector. In one episode of The Big Bang Theory Sheldon was offered a position down there which should give you some indication of its significance to the physics/cosmology set. The structure is a vast array of basket ball sized sensors which dangle like Christmas baubles 2,000 metres below the surface. There are well over 5,000 of the things suspended in the ice. The clarity the complete blackness make it the perfect place for picking up neutrinos. Similarly there is a night club in Sydney’s South called the Vinyl Room which also very dark and consequently the perfect environment for picking up divorcees (so I have heard).
This diagram shows just how big the project is.
It was no easy (or cheap ) feat to install all this complex equipment in the ice and the project involved collaboration between 41 institutions from 12 different countries. So we must have a pretty good reason to hunt down neutrinos.
What are they? As far as my tiny brain can comprehend, neutrinos are tiny particles which arise when an atomic nucleus breaks down. They have no charge and don’t interact with anything which is why they are mysterious to scientists. The universe is absolutely buzzing with them but they very rarely come into contact with anything. To give you some idea each second, about 100 trillion neutrinos go through your body. In your entire lifetime, just 1 single neutrino might interact with an atom in your body. Seriously how do people know stuff like this? They can come from radio active decay here on earth and are created by our own sun. Super nova and gamma ray bursts make a souped up version and this is type Ice Cube is looking for. Understanding more about neutrinos will help scientists better understand the nature of matter. It will also help us ultimately understand the origins of the universe itself.
In April 2012 Ice Cube found a pair of neutrinos which they were certain originated from outside the solar system. It was a big deal in physics circles and the pair were christened Ernie and Bert.
Its pure research and no one knows where it is going to all end up. Its hoped that it may help explain mysteries like what is dark matter and how gravity works. In the meantime I find it amazing that people can identify this tiny winy infinitesimal things and pin point where it the universe they came from even if it was millions of light years away. Sure there’s a strong argument that we should be devoting our resources to solving practical problems in the here and now like ending famine, curbing global warming and curing cancer. Nevertheless the cult of physics fascinates me. Whilst the mainstream is all a twitter about Sienna Miller’s brief encounter with Daniel Craig (whilst she was dating Jude Law)* there’s a core of people devoting their lives to unraveling these esoteric questions. It restores my faith in humanity.
As my favorite piece of laboratory crumpet Prof Brian Cox says ” .Time and again history shows you that trying to understand nature as a goal leads to the most wonderful discoveries that change civilization. It’s impossible to know which bit of that discovery is going to lead to something useful”.
What do you think?
*Personally I am aghast about this. Its simply unfair that one woman gets to have so much fun. Biatch!