Neutrinos and the Intensity Frontier: Fermilab Part II (& MINOS Part I)

The enormous hole in the MINOS building that leads down to the NuMI neutrino beamline and MINOS's near detector.

The enormous hole in the MINOS building that leads down to the NuMI neutrino beamline and MINOS

In all the fuss about how amazing the LHC is going to be, we often forget that there are things it won’t be able to do. One of the most glaring holes in the LHC’s research program is how little work it plans to do on neutrino physics, one of the most exciting and promising fields in the quest to go beyond the Standard Model. Neutrinos are elementary particles that are nearly massless and have no charge. They rarely interact with other particles, so you need to make a lot of them to have the faintest hope of detecting just a few in experiments. In other words, you don’t need very high energy protons to produce neutrinos, but you do need a lot of lower energy ones.

It wouldn’t really make sense to devote much of the LHC’s particle yield to experiments that don’t need anything approaching its high energies, especially during the early years of the experiment. So Fermilab, somewhat presciently, is stepping in to fill the gap. As our tour guide and gracious host Kurt Riesselmann told us, “Fermilab is moving from the energy frontier to the intensity frontier” — meaning that instead of producing a small number of the highest possible energy particles, the lab is figuring out how to make as many lower energy particles as possible.

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Robert Wilson’s Weird Dream Lab: Fermilab, part 1

Perhaps I’m biased, but Fermilab is one of my favorite places.  Not only is it home to the biggest kind of Big Science — the Tevatron — but it also manages to be the quirkiest of the National Labs. I went there for the first time as a science writing intern in the summer of 2005 and, as this trip should make clear, never really looked back.

A panorama showcasing Wilsons blue-and-orange color scheme and his self-designed π-shaped power poles stretching off into the distance.

A panorama showcasing Wilson's blue-and-orange color scheme and his self-designed π-shaped power poles stretching off into the distance.

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Oak Ridge: Where Cyclotrons Still Roam

Lizzie staring into the exposed belly of the Recoil Mass Spectrometer

Lizzie staring into the exposed belly of the Recoil Mass Spectrometer

Initially, we didn’t think we’d have time to visit Oak Ridge – our planned route took us on a comparatively leisurely drive from New York to Chicago with a stop in Pittsburgh for a night. But as the recommendations began to pile up, first from John Haggerty and the other physicists at Brookhaven, then Cindy Kelly of the Atomic Heritage Foundation, we realized that the additional visit to Tennessee would probably be worth it.

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Nuclear Tourism

The only stop on our tour that didn’t directly involve physics research was at the University of Chicago. Today, a statue and plaques sit above the exact spot where Enrico Fermi initiated the first controlled nuclear reaction in 1942 by pushing chunks of uranium into a pile of graphite – essentially the same process used by the Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge (which you can read about in the Old Headers section or in our upcoming post about the Lab).

While the plaques speak of the “tremendous scientific potential” tapped for the first time by Fermi’s experiment, Henry Moore’s sculpture more somberly combines the forms of a mushroom cloud and a human skull. By the mid 1960s, when the sculpture was commissioned, the terrible power of nuclear reactions had apparently become all too clear.

A closer look at RHIC

A panoramic view of the PHENIX detectors building and counting house. To the left, an entrance to RHICs particle beam ring is visible. When access is required, the enormous concrete slabs that block the entrance are removed with a crane to expose the route into the tunnel.

A panoramic view of the PHENIX detector's building and counting house. To the left, an entrance to RHIC's particle beam ring is visible. When access is required, the enormous concrete slabs that block the entrance are removed with a crane to expose the route into the tunnel.

The Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at Brookhaven is a medium-to-high-energy machine that plays a unique role in the study of the early universe. While most particle accelerators collide single particles (like protons and antiprotons in the case Fermilab’s Tevatron), RHIC’s main purpose is to collide gold nuclei, each of which contains 79 protons.

Why the additional mass? The results of a proton-antiproton collision usually look something like this:

A proton-antiproton collision at the Tevatron

A proton-antiproton collision at the Tevatron (courtesy of Rockefeller University/CDF)

Gold ion collisions produce tracks like this:

A gold ion collision at RHIC

A gold ion collision at RHIC (courtesy of RHIC, found on Wikipedia)

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Physics finally cool enough for Rolling Stone

Coinciding conveniently with our trip, the new issue of Rolling Stone profiles Steven Chu, Obama’s Energy Secretary. (You can read a PDF here.) The Department of Energy is unquestionably a bureaucratic mess (exhibit A: the Superconducting Super Collider), and Chu says he is committed to supporting good science rather than playing politics — a refreshing change for the department, considering that one congressional science staffer told Jeff Goodell, the piece’s author, “In the past, the only qualification necessary to becoming secretary of energy was that you knew nothing about energy.” Continue reading

The National Synchrotron Light Source

Brookhaven’s National Synchrotron Light Source, we would discover, is just that — a light source. And despite the differences in scale and the methods of production, it isn’t so different from the studio lights used by photographers. In each case, the way to get the best image is to shine a really bright light on the subject and take a picture of it. Indeed, the only respect in which the light source’s name can be misleading is that it does not confine itself to the visible light spectrum, but uses everything between infrared and x-rays.

A view of the workspaces surrounding the smaller ring at Brookhavens National Synchrotron Light Source

A view of the workspaces surrounding the smaller ring at Brookhaven's National Synchrotron Light Source

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