Skip navigation links

Oct. 6, 2014

Cool research: Searching for neutrinos at the South Pole

When Tyce DeYoung plans his next research field trip, he’ll make sure to pack his mittens, scarf and long underwear.

The Michigan State University associate professor of physics and astronomy, along with assistant professor Kendall Mahn, is part of an MSU team that recently joined an international consortium studying mysterious particles known as neutrinos.

The site of the lab where they do the work: The South Pole.

The consortium consists of 300 researchers from 12 countries. It is named, very appropriately, the IceCube Neutrino Observatory.

“Neutrinos are fundamental particles, like electrons or the quarks that make up protons,” he said. “They are one of the by-products of stellar events such as supernovas.”

The researchers do their work at the South Pole because it is a “clean lab,” ideally suited for gathering the particles as they bombard the Earth.

“South Pole ice is cleaner than any ice you could make in a lab,” DeYoung said. “It is incredibly transparent and nearly free of radioactive contaminants.”

This is important, he said, because they use the ice as the medium to observe the neutrinos.

When neutrinos collide with protons which are already in the ice, they produce a spray of particles with so much energy that they actually outrun light in the ice.

“They give off a shock wave, just like a plane moving faster than the speed of sound,” DeYoung said. “But instead of a sonic boom, it’s a visual equivalent of that. Light is produced and it’s that light we detect.”

The light is detected by instruments known as digital optical modules that are located several thousand feet beneath the surface of Antarctica.

"We are able to create neutrinos at accelerators such as Fermilab," DeYoung said. "But we can measure some things much less expensively using free-range, organic neutrinos."

Neutrinos are harmless, he said. It’s estimated that trillions of them pass through us every second.

DeYoung said the work he and his colleagues do is strictly basic research. But he says all major discoveries had their roots in basic research.

“If you look back over the last century, there are countless examples of things that were so exotic when they were first observed,” he said. “The better we understand nature at a fundamental level, the more ability we have to build a society that provides for its citizens.”


By: Tom Oswald