July 26, 1999 COLORADO SPRINGS - One of the tiniest particles known to mankind will be beamed through two states and under this country's largest lake when a Colorado College physicist tests his theory that what goes in isn't necessarily what comes out.
Nathaniel Longley, an assistant professor at this nationally ranked liberal arts college, recently won a $30,000 grant to measure neutrino mass with a "long baseline" detector. Working with his students and researchers from Oxford, Harvard and other schools, Longley will beam the subatomic particles from Illinois through Wisconsin and under Lake Superior to northern Minnesota to document if - as projected - the neutrinos change.
"The work has fundamental implications for a number of fields," Longley says. "It is intimately related to our classroom studies, and will likely require changes in modern physics, astronomy, astrophysics and particle physics, among other subjects."
Subatomic particles in radioactive decay, neutrinos are extremely difficult to detect, and can easily pass through the entire earth without stopping. There are more neutrinos in the universe than any other particle - about 10,000 per cubic inch.
"For a long time it was thought that neutrinos had no mass," Longley explains. "But our experiment indicates that may not be true." What's more, the physicist suspects that once neutrinos have mass, they change from one kind of particle to another.
In this experiment, one kind of neutrino will be beamed through the long baseline detector and researchers will look for other kinds to come out of the far end. Because the mass is so small, however, it takes some time for the neutrinos to change, thus explaining why the beam has to be so long.
CC students Maria Grundmann and Katy-Robin Garton, collaborators on this research project, did such good work on an independent project earlier this year that Longley hired them for this summer job. The undergraduates will staff a shift on the experiment just like other researchers, soldering broken circuits, monitoring detector performance, and so on. They also attended a scientific meeting in northern Minnesota in June, and will spend July working on new data analysis as well as prototype testing for the new MINOS (the Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search) detector that will be built in northern Minnesota.
Longley, who received his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, wrote his dissertation on "Ultra High Energy Cosmic Ray Composition." He'll be on leave next year to work on the experiment in Minnesota. Before that, he and a group of CC students are traveling to Italy for related work.
The grant to study neutrinos was made possible by the Research Corporation, a foundation for the advancement of science that supports basic research in chemistry, physics and astronomy at public and private undergraduate colleges. The corporation's goal is to support significant research that will lead to the development of undergraduate faculty and their students.
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