When I met the man in charge of America's biggest neutrino detection project, he wasn't entirely sober. He and my boss sat in front of four or five empty bottles of wine, weaving from side to side the way people do when they have to keep stopping themselves from falling over.
One of the big NSF execs was there in the McMurdo coffee house, which was officially closed. He was behind the bar, brewing coffee, tossing a sawbuck on the counter and applying a one-step opener to a bottle of shiraz.
It wasn't working very well.
I shook the man's hand, the ice cube project leader's. He's balding, medium height, slightly beyond middle-age--looking very much like the public should expect a geeky principle scientist to look.
But he had groupies. Several gorgeous support workers hung on his every word.
In this world there are women for whom dense science is a powerful aphrodesiac. Add to that the possibility of a trip to Stockholm, and you could smell the sex in the air.
I shook the man's hand and introduced myself. He repeated my name incorrectly.
Three or four times.
His main groupie introduced herself to me. She had glistening blue eyes, shoulder-length auburn hair, the face of a celtic princess, and worked as a cargo handler on the flight line.
She diverted her attention from her man for exactly long enough to say her name.
It was Cindy.
After shaking hands with a Nobel shoe-in, I decided to find out a little more about this project. After all, they were spending $200,000,000 in US Taxpayer money to detect undetectable neutrinos. That would tell us all more about the nature of the dark matter and dark energy in the universe. That would help us know more about the origin of the universe.
Some of that money was mine.
Days later as I lay in my tent on the floor of the Taylor Valley shivering in my sleeping bag, I wondered what it was about us as a people that make us spend such sums on research. To this point in my life I've been a capitalist. An entrepreneur. In my world effort is expended to gain wealth. Knowledge was gained in order to maintain or obtain an edge over the competition.
The output of science is knowledge. Knowledge is not inherently profitable.
And here was my own government, spending enough money to start a hospital in order to know more about what happened 0.0000000000000000000001 second after the big bang.
Why? What does this knowing get you, except closer to the answer to the question we all have.
Who made us? Where the hell are you, God?
Millions spent to answer this question. Billions over years. And this drunk guy was going to get us that much closer. And I always thought I could figure it out myself.
Ice cube is a reasonably controversial program on the ice. While the federal government has allocated the $200M for the initial research, several collaborator countries are also ponying up big bucks. Japan. Germany. France.
As is typical with government sponsored programs, not one person who received the initial ice cube money had any idea how it would be done, or how much it would cost to build the detector. All the initial money was for the design and conceptualization.
They're going to drill eighty 2.4 kilometer holes in the ice near the south pole station. To do that, they've designed and constructed an ice drill that burns a countinuous 5 megawatts to melt the ice. They will then drop an optical detector array into each hole. Sixty detectors will hang from a cable along a kilometer-long section at depths between 1.4 kilometers and 2.4 kilometers.
The resulting area of detection, sixty detectors in each of 80 holes spaced in a hexagonal pattern, will be a cubic kilometer. It will be the biggest detector of its kind on earth.
What it will detect is cerenkov emission. When a particle in a medium (read: not a vacuum) moves faster than the speed of light in that medium it emits photons. Passing through water/ice, some particles from outer space go faster than the speed of light in ice and emit that deep blue light one has seen in pictures of active nuclear reactors. (Yes, a subatomic particle can move faster than the speed of light in a medium other than a vacuum without violating the rules of special relativity.)
Ice cube will look for deep blue flashes in the cubic kilometer of ice it will observe. The flashes will be along tracks taken by particles zipping past on their way from sources in outer space. By monitoring the wavelength and intensity of those flashes as well as their speed/direction, they'll be able to tell where in the universe the particle came from, how powerful it was, and what likely caused it.
Mostly, they're interested in particles that have traveled through the entire earth from the northern hemisphere through the earth's core to the southern hemisphere and up out of the ice at the south pole.
Pretty much, only the elusive neutrino can do that.
There is already a small version of ice cube running. Called the Antarctic Muon And Neutrino Detector Array (AMANDA), it has been running since 1997. Since then, millions of dollars has been spent to detect 204 events that may indeed be neutrinos.
Five years (as of 2002), couple tens of millions of dollars, 204 events.
Now we're multiplying that investment by more than a factor of ten. That's how badly we the people of the earth want to see neutrinos.
Other things can be detected by cerenkov radiation. For instance, proton decay.
The interesting thing about proton decay is that it points to the eventual disintegration of all matter in the universe. As far as we can tell, protons decay so infrequently the sun will likely turn into a supergiant and engulf the earth in nuclear, iron-burning plasma before they're even slightly gone. We're talking 1x10^30 years for half the protons in our world to decay. That's a one followed by 30 zeroes.
Very little in your life requires a number that big to think about. Don't worry. You'll be long dead of cancer or heart failure before proton decay becomes a problem.
But the cubic kilometer of ice under observation will inevitably exhibit at least one proton decay while someone is watching. When it does, we'll be ready.
Then we can more accurately predict the end of the universe. So you see, these astronomers are interested in two things. The beginning of the world. The end of the world.
Are you even slightly curious why the Vatican has an official astronomical observatory?
Now you know.
The biggest problem with the ice cube project is best felt down on the ice where people have to deal with it every day.
The 5 megawatt ice drill will burn three C130 loads of kerosine per hole. A fourth C130 flight will be needed to deliver the 2.4 kilometer detector string. They hope to drill 16 holes per year. That's forty-eight C130 flights.
A herc C130 flight is a big deal in Antarctica. There's no radar there. Pilots never fly on instruments unless something really horrible is happening. Any storm, however small, is cause to cancel a C130 flight or at the minimum, to cause one to have to turn around and go back where it came from.
There are a fixed number of hercs in the world equipped to land on the ice. Most of them are in Antarctica and the others are up north. They belong to the military. National security comes before science, according to the government. So getting more planes is not an option, even if it means finding God.
Almost all supplies at south pole station are brought in by C130. Food. Fuel. Building materials. Scientific equipment.
Project ice cube requires 25% of all C130 flights to pole station for each year it operates. And each year, ice cube will use as much fuel as is required to keep pole station running the entire year. In order to build ice cube people have to figure out how to double the diesel transport to Antarctica.
This has raised some eyebrows in the logistics community. That's a big taxation on the pole station's lifeline.
Getting fuel to Antarctica is a non-trivial task. It comes in on a tanker. One tanker. Once per year. Getting more fuel down there may mean sending an additional tanker, or a bigger tanker. That means more environmental risk. More environmental risk is unacceptable to most of the people funding Antarctic research.
The people who want to find God didn't think about that part.
They're also trying to build a new station down there. That requires cranes, bulldozers, and people who themselves require warmth, shelter, and food. Since it was funded in 2001, project ice cube is now threatening resources required by the new station construction.
The bad thing about this is the old station is sinking into the ice. So is the new station. The parts of the new station that are already built are sinking so fast they have to be jacked up periodically to mate the old pieces with the new pieces.
People would like to get the new station built on schedule so it can all sink and be jacked-up at the same time. That would be nice. They think.
The ice cube scientists just shrug when these logistical issues are mentioned. It wasn't their problem to figure out how to get the detector built. They're scientists. They proposed a project. It was accepted. It isn't their problem how it gets squeezed in with everything else.
And so on. They're trying to find God. Other people are measuring how fast the ice moves. How much the earth wobbles on its axis. What kinds of molecules exist between the planets circling stars in other galaxies.
It's not popular to publically dis the ice cube program. It's heavily funded, in the news, and a personal favorite of several U.S. legislators. It keeps a focus on Antarctic research, which we all need to keep open our connection to the ice.
Everyone knows it's impossible for ice cube to coexist as currently planned along with everything else that has to be done. Yet, no one doubts it will be built. These are the steely-eyed rocket men and women who solve problems in outer space. There is no problem beyond their resolve.
So everyone is betting with Cindy the science groupie that in shaking hands with Robert, we can tell our grandchildren we shook hands with a Nobel-prize winner in Antarctica.
Numerous personal drunken conversations at McMurdo and in the field in Antarctica, austral summer, 2002