Faculty voice:

Tyce DeYoung: Basic research is cool, very cool

April 1, 2015

Tyce DeYoung is an associate professor of physics and astronomy in the College of Natural Science. He conducts research in particle astrophysics – the study of some of the highest energy particles in the universe, with the goal of understanding their properties and their origins. He works with the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, a billion-ton neutrino detector located at the South Pole.

I have a great job. As a member of Michigan State’s physics and astronomy department, I not only have the opportunity to teach great students at one of the world’s top universities, but also conduct research using the IceCube Neutrino Observatory. I’m grateful to MSU and the National Science Foundation for their generous support of several graduate and undergraduate students and postdoctoral researchers who work on IceCube with me.

IceCube Observatory at the South Pole

The South Pole is the location of the aptly named IceCube Neutrino Observatory. Photo by Sven Lidstrom, IceCube/NSF.

IceCube was dubbed “the world’s coolest telescope” by Popular Science in 2008, and no wonder – the observatory consists of a billion tons of the Antarctic ice cap below the United States’ South Pole Station, a research facility operated by the NSF. We embedded more than 5,000 photosensors in the ice, more than a mile below the surface, to watch for faint flashes of light produced when subatomic particles called neutrinos happen to interact with atoms in the ice.

Neutrinos are one of nature’s mysteries: The universe is filled with them, trillions of them passing through our bodies every minute. They are millions of times lighter than any other known particles, and very rarely interact with the rest of the universe. We recently discovered neutrinos emitted by some unknown sources out in the universe, at energies hundreds of times higher than we can achieve at the world’s most powerful particle accelerators, a discovery that was dubbed 2013’s “Breakthrough of the Year” by Physics World magazine. Next up: Figuring out where they come from!

I am often asked why I work on IceCube. For me, the answer is simple: I’m curious. I want to know why neutrinos have such unusual properties and what they tell us about the fundamental structure of matter. The desire to always know more is an essential part of what makes us human. But it’s fair to ask why we should support research like IceCube when there are so many other things that money could be spent on. The National Science Foundation invested almost $250 million in building IceCube – almost $1 for every person in the United States. What return will you see on your dollar?

IceCube Observatory at the South Pole

The IceCube Neutrino Observatory is located at the South Pole. MSU recently joined the international consortium which studies neutrinos, fundamental particles that are produced by stellar events such as supernovas. Photo byFelipe Pedreros, IceCube/NSF

It’s a good question. Part of the answer is the students who get excited by IceCube, perhaps spend some time working on the project, and go on to be scientists or engineers. But it’s hard to point to a specific way in which knowing more about neutrinos will make our economy stronger or our lives safer or more comfortable. Looking at our society today, though, there are myriad ways we benefit from similar research that took place decades or even centuries ago, driven purely by curiosity, with no useful applications in sight.

When Benjamin Franklin was flying his kite, he couldn’t have imagined the uses we put electricity to today – it was more than a century later that Thomas Edison developed his light bulb, and almost two centuries until the first electronic computers were developed. Albert Einstein wasn’t thinking about GPS satellites when he came up with the theory of relativity, but my smartphone wouldn’t be able to give me directions without it.

I don’t know whether neutrinos will ever be useful – perhaps for communications, or geological exploration, or because what we learn from them provide new theories that allow us to better control matter and energy. But I’m willing to bet that the greatest invention of 2115, whatever it is, will connect back in some way to fundamental research being carried out now by someone who has no idea what it may ever be good for.

In the meantime, I’m grateful for the opportunity to do what I love – trying to solve these scientific puzzles and, hopefully, getting young people excited about solving them too.

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