Saturday, March 20, 2010

Some Thoughts on Neutrinos and Cotton Candy

I'm reading about neutrinos.

The reason I mention it is because I'm not sure what their purpose is, but they're really interesting, like cotton candy.

Let me explain.

Neutrinos are particles that go through everything at the speed of light. And every time they do they oscillate, or morph, into a new form that becomes undetectable. In fact, there are only three kinds -- or flavors, according to physicists -- that we do know of: electron, muon, and tau.

Like cotton candy.

Neutrinos are so hard to catch that when it happens, it's called an "event." In 1998, some folks decided that the best way to do that would be to line an underground, mineral-fortified cave with stainless steel and fill it with 50,000 tons of purified water. It worked, and they demonstrated that neutrinos have very little mass.

Again, like cotton candy.

You can even make your own neutrinos. Just get some hydrogen atoms, shoot their electrons off with an over-the-counter electrified iron chamber, spin the remaining protons through several miles of progressively spiral pipe until they reach the speed of light, aim them at a small, magnet-engulfed tube on the other side of the world, and fire.

After being shot I-don't-know-how-many miles and getting sprayed through several mineral-related filters at about a zillion miles an hour, the protons are stopped by 50 feet of iron -- what's known as a "beam dump" -- to simmer.

I once saw someone make cotton candy this way at the Watonwan county fair.

Some of what cools off will be neutrinos, which are then aimed at the detection laboratory in Gran Sasso, a mountain east of Rome. If you're lucky, some of them will not pass through the lab and into infinity, but will hang around for observation, much like the sugar from cotton candy after it gets stored as fat and appears on your waist as love handles.

The only thing I don't get is why it's so important to study them, but then, I'm not a scientist. And scientists think that the uncountable number of neutrinos (which, collectively, outweigh every star and galaxy in the universe) might be responsible for up to one-fifth of the dark matter that holds everything together.

Like cotton candy.


Anonymous said...

I think the neutrinos come from the East to the Tower-Soudan Mine in northern MN...Dad knows about these things. Cotton candy feels just as invisible as n's!

John said...

Really? They didn't mention that when I was there. I'd like to see that.

Moxy Jane said...

Cotton candy always makes me feel slightly ill and I'm sticky for hours afterwards...I hope neutrinos (which I can't say without thinking of Spanish Club) don't have that effect on me.