The world\'s first neutrino telescope is up and running .. amazing

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The world's first neutrino telescope is up and running .. amazing

Aazing telescope may change our view of life as we know it, ...

Tiny black holes whizzing through the Earth's atmosphere several times a minute. Gravity "leaking" into other dimensions. A solution to a mystery that vexed Einstein to his grave.

It sounds a lot like science fiction, but it isn't. Each of these fantastic possibilities - and a good many more - could be made real with the help of a giant instrument in the Antarctic ice that one astrophysicist compared to Galileo's first telescope. AMANDA, a hunter of ghostly particles known as neutrinos, is ready to go to work. Scientists are now fine- tuning the instrument.

"We are going to look for the most powerful and exotic objects out there," said astrophysicist Steven Barwick of the University of California, Irvine, now at the South Pole, where the temperature are -4 degrees Fahrenheit.

What excites Barwick and other scientists is AMANDA's revolutionary potential. It is a telescope, but a radically different kind: one that, for the first time in history, will not rely on light to gather information about exotic objects in the distant universe.

Instead, it will rely on neutrinos, particles with no charge and almost no mass that barely interact with matter at all. The detector, a massive array of light-sensitive globes buried in the crystal clear Antarctic ice, has had its first test run, Barwick reported in a scientific paper last week . It will now begin scanning the heavens for some of the strangest objects known to astronomy and to try to confirm some of the weirdest ideas in modern physics.

Seeing the universe with neutrinos could revolutionize both fields.

Neutrinos are everywhere; billions are zipping through your body every second.

But in a sense, they seem hardly here at all. A neutrino could plow through 10,000 Earths without bumping into anything, or even slowing down.

That makes them extremely hard to detect - part of the reason AMANDA, though sunk entirely beneath the surface of the polar ice, is taller than the Eiffel Tower.

The same thing that makes neutrinos hard to find also makes them ideal for peering into the cosmos. Light from distant objects, be they shining stellar nurseries or exploding stars, can be blocked, scattered or distorted by the dust and gas it must pass through to reach the Earth.

Neutrinos streaming from the same objects, however, arrive in pure form.

For scientists, it will be like switching from grainy black-and-white television with rabbit ear antennas to a crisp Sony Trinitron with cable.

They could watch the births or the death throes of stars as if they were happening next door.

But what has captivated theorists like Jonathan Feng, also at UCI, is the chance that AMANDA could at last reveal whether cutting edge ideas in physics - the possible existence of multiple dimensions, or even microscopic black holes that blink in and out of existence in a tiny fraction of a second - are grounded in reality.

"Physicists and theorists like me can postulate whatever we feel like," Feng said. "But the proof is in the pudding."

Feng's theories would make Rod Serling proud. And if shown to be even partly correct, they could shed light on a puzzle that troubled Einstein to the end of his days.

Since Einstein's day, scientists who study the origin of the universe and everything in it have had a big problem. Three of the four forces holding matter and our universe together, the strong and weak nuclear forces and the electromagnetic force, have been joined happily under a single theory, one that describes precisely how all three work.

The troubled stepchild is gravity. Though it causes stars and planets to form and holds galaxies in thrall, gravity is extremely weak on the tiniest scales.

The repulsive force between electrons, for instance, is a trillion trillion trillion times more powerful than gravity.

But why? That's what bothered Einstein. He spent his last years fruitlessly trying to unite gravity with the other forces. He couldn't make it work.

No one else has been able to, either. But Feng has a fascinating way out.

What if, he wonders, gravity operates in more dimensions than the other forces?

That would mean that instead of our familar four dimensions - three of space, one of time - the universe might contain many more; perhaps a total of 10 or 11 dimensions, as suggested by some current theories.

Those theories say these extra dimensions would be so tiny and tightly curled that nothing we have could ever detect them.

But it's also possible they aren't quite so small, Feng says. It's possible they're connected in some way to the measurable universe.

If so, one fascinating possibility is a continual rain of microscopic black holes in our atmosphere.

Most astronomers and physicists agree that massive black holes, stars that have collapsed under such a heavy load of gravity that they suck in everything, including light, are found throughout the universe - even at the center of our galaxy.

But it's just possible, Feng said, that microscopic, fleeting black holes may exist as well. He says careful calculations show that these could only exist in a universe with extra dimensions.

Cosmic rays of extremely high energy, or high-energy neutrinos like those detected by AMANDA, could be creating such black holes when they strike atmospheric particles on Earth.

They would wink out again in almost no time at all, but not before causing a kind of microscopic traffic accident, with bits and pieces flying everywhere.

By detecting those bits and pieces, AMANDA could allow physicists to prove such black holes exist.

And if they do, it would be solid proof of the existence of other dimensions. That would mean that gravity is actually a strong force, as strong as the others, but a shadow of itself when measured only in our familiar set of four dimensions.

The rest of it could be "leaking" into the other dimensions.

"It might look very calm and weak," Feng said. "But that is just because it's being spread over a huge amount of different dimensions. It may be allowed to go in much more dimensions than we're naively thinking."

Such a discovery would be a key to linking gravity with the other forces and solving the greatest riddle in the universe.

It could open the door to explaining what happened before the Big Bang, what "dark matter" - which dominates the universe but has never been detected - is made of, and where, exactly, things go when they disappear into the maw of a black hole.

"We have a long way to go," Feng said. "But with all these experiments starting to get running, it will be exciting to see how it all turns out."
By netchicken: posted on 31-1-2003

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