In Excerpts, Thoughts on April 13, 2011 at 6:05 pm

About 400 miles from where tsunami waves slowly consumed the town of Ishinomaki, a facility near Hida, Japan, buried 3,000 feet underground, continued its search for supernova, atmospheric, and solar neutrinos.

neu-tri-no noun

neutrino is an elementary particle that usually travels close to the speed of light, is electrically neutral, and is able to pass through ordinary matter almost unaffected. This makes neutrinos extremely difficult to detect. Neutrinos have a very small, but nonzero mass. They are denoted by the Greek letter ν (nu).

Origin: Italian, from neutro neutral, neuter, from Latin neutr-, neuter

First Known Use: 1934

Rhymes with: Aquino, Latino, merino

You can read more about them if you want, but I have little interest—and not nearly enough time—to understand precisely what Wikipedia is trying so desperately, in more than 25 sub-sections to tell me. I’m interested in this thing—it goes by Super-Kamiokande, Super-K for short—for the architectural and aesthetic onslaught it delivers.

I don’t need to mention the immediate sense of living in a science-fiction graphic novel or the absolute absence of determinable scale. I don’t need to explain the disorienting nature of a 100-foot tall, water-bottomed tank, lined with photomultiplier tubes.

What goes on inside, via W:

A neutrino interaction with the electrons or nuclei of water can produce a charged particle that moves faster than the speed of light in water. This creates a cone of light known as Cherenkov radiation, which is the optical equivalent to a sonic boom. The Cherenkov light is projected as a ring on the wall of the detector and recorded by the PMTs. Using the timing and charge information recorded by each PMT, the interaction vertex, ring direction and flavor of the incoming neutrino is determined. From the sharpness of the edge of the ring the type of particle can be inferred. The multiple scattering of electrons is large, so electromagnetic showers produce fuzzy rings. Highly relativistic muons, in contrast, travel almost straight through the detector and produce rings with sharp edges.

I’m following it a bit until “highly relativistic muons, in contrast, travel almost straight through the detector.” Muons? No idea. An event in 2001, however, I can imagine. And I imagine it would’ve been terrifying had anyone been inside at the time.

On November 12, 2001, about 6,600 of the photomultiplier tubes (costing about $3000 each [8]) in the Super-Kamiokande detector imploded, apparently in a chain reaction as the shock wave from the concussion of each imploding tube cracked its neighbours.

Perhaps the following image comes from the repair work that was done on the 6,000 damaged tubes.

Someone over at BionicBong—a much more learned blog than its name implies—made the observation that “it’s good to see that no matter how hi-tech it gets, things are still done with standard office chairs.” Despite the fact that Super-K was built in 1996, it’s incredible that some of these images, and even the whole aesthetic somehow feels like a 1970s made-for-television movie.

More incredible still is that apparently these neutrino detectors are not all the same. One in Sudbury, Ontario, just 12 hours from here, is perhaps even more other-worldly:

(In the second photo, I enjoy how the white material hangs like a wilting petunia, a long red stamen bursting from its center.)

A world I don’t understand. But one that requires incredible architectural skill. And one that will forever fascinate those of us who will never worry about photomultiplier implosion.


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