The Telescope in the Ice: Inventing a New Astronomy at the South Pole

The Telescope in the Ice: Inventing a New Astronomy at the South Pole

by Mark Bowen

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Overview

**One of Forbes' 10 Best Astronomy, Physics And Mathematics Books of 2017**

"Richly intimate, drawing on Mr. Bowen's long involvement with the IceCube project and its participants...Human emotions are palpable in the author's you-are-there framing." —The Wall Street Journal

Alan Lightman: "A masterpiece of storytelling, bringing to life in rich detail not only the world of science but also the men and women who inhabit that world."

George Musser, author of Spooky Action at a Distance: "If you want to know how science really works, this is your book."

Sheldon Lee Glashow, 1979 Nobel Laureate in Physics: "A page-turning chronicle of the decades-long struggle by hundreds of physicists and engineers to create a frontier laboratory for the pursuit of the new discipline of neutrino astronomy."

The IceCube Observatory has been called the “weirdest” of the seven wonders of modern astronomy by Scientific American. In The Telescope in the Ice, Mark Bowen tells the amazing story of the people who built the instrument and the science involved.

Located near the U. S. Amundsen-Scott Research Station at the geographic South Pole, IceCube is unlike most telescopes in that it is not designed to detect light. It employs a cubic kilometer of diamond-clear ice, more than a mile beneath the surface, to detect an elementary particle known as the neutrino. In 2010, it detected the first extraterrestrial high-energy neutrinos from outer space and thus gave birth to a new field of astronomy.

IceCube is also the largest particle physics detector ever built. Its scientific goals span not only astrophysics and cosmology but also pure particle physics. And since the neutrino is one of the strangest and least understood of the known elementary particles, this is fertile ground. Neutrino physics is perhaps the most active field in particle physics today, and IceCube is at the forefront.

The Telescope in the Ice is, ultimately, a book about people and the thrill of the chase: the struggle to understand the neutrino and the pioneers and inventors of neutrino astronomy. It is a success story.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781137280084
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/14/2017
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 493,779
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

MARK BOWEN is a writer, physicist. He earned a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate in physics at MIT and worked for a decade in the medical industry. Bowen has written for Climbing, Natural History, Science, Technology Review, and AMC Outdoors. He has been embedded in AMANDA and IceCube since 1998. He lives in Vermont. The Telescope in the Ice is his third book.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

This Crazy Child

Physicists are more interesting than physics.

— ROBERT MILLIKAN

The particle now known as the neutrino first appeared in the mind of the Viennese physicist Wolfgang Pauli sometime near the end of 1930.

This was about the midpoint of what was arguably the most exciting eight-year period in the history of science, as great thinkers such as Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, Max Born, Paul Dirac, Albert Einstein (protesting all the way), and Pauli himself addressed the bewildering puzzles of the atom and crafted the modern theory of quantum mechanics. In 1930, the quest was shifting from atomic structure to the next smallest length scale, the nucleus.

Pauli was thirty years old. He had been born in 1900 — the same year, coincidentally, in which Max Planck discovered a granularity in the energy carried by a certain type of radiation, his so-called quantum of action, and opened the Pandora's Box of the atomic world (although Pauli, as we shall see, did not necessarily believe in coincidence).

Recognized as a prodigy in math and physics as a child, Pauli made his first impression on the wider world just after graduating from high school, when he wrote three papers on Einstein's mathematically sophisticated general theory of relativity, which the great man had completed only three years earlier. Pauli then went to the University of Munich to study under Arnold Sommerfeld, who was perhaps the leading authority on the "old" Bohr-Sommerfeld quantum theory, which Bohr had introduced in 1913. Pauli earned his doctorate, summa cum laude, in the minimum time allowed, three years, with a thesis on molecular hydrogen that was probably the most ambitious application of the Bohr-Sommerfeld theory ever attempted — and somehow found time to publish a magisterial, 237page treatise on relativity at about same time. The treatise evoked the following praise from Einstein himself:

No one studying this mature, grandly conceived work would believe that the author is a man of twenty-one. One wonders what to admire most, the psychological understanding for the development of the ideas, the sureness of mathematical deduction, the profound physical insight, the capacity for lucid, systematic presentation, the knowledge of the literature, the complete treatment of the subject matter, or the sureness of critical appraisal.

In 1924, the young man proposed what is now known as the Pauli exclusion principle, which explains how the electrons in an atom sort themselves into orbitals that line up with the rows in the periodic table of the elements. Among several of his contributions that might have been worthy of a Nobel, this was the one that won one, a couple of decades after the fact, in 1945. Pauli, who was Jewish by heritage, was in Princeton, New Jersey, at the time, having accepted an appointment at the Institute for Advanced Study in order to escape Nazi persecution. Einstein, who had nominated him for the prize, was in Princeton as well, since the institute had been founded, essentially, in order to give him a place to work outside Germany. Since Pauli didn't hold a valid passport, he couldn't travel to Stockholm for the award ceremony, so a splendid banquet was thrown for him in Princeton instead. Partway through, to everyone's surprise, Einstein rose and proposed an impromptu toast designating Pauli as his intellectual and spiritual heir. "I will never forget the speech," the younger man wrote in a letter to Max Born, ten years later. "It was like the abdication of a king, installing me as sort of 'son of choice,' as successor."

Born was not alone in considering Pauli a genius comparable to Einstein, and possibly even a greater scientist, though not as great a man. Pauli had no interest in the practical applications of science. He didn't read newspapers. When he was offered a permanent position at the Institute for Advanced Study, for example, he turned it down and returned to the position at the Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zürich that he had held before the war, in the view that nuclear weapons research was casting a pall on American physics.

He was oblivious to the cutthroat competition of science; his passion was for clarity. Nor did he care for recognition; he usually found it irritating, although he did go out of his way to give credit to others. He made many important discoveries that are now attached to other people's names, independently and frequently before they did, but rarely mentioned it. And he was unconstrained by the petty "publish or perish" mentality of most academics. His published output was relatively slim. But in his lifelong search for clear understanding, he wrote thousands of letters to the many giants who walked the world of physics in his day — and to experts in other fields, especially philosophy, psychology, and art history. His collected scientific correspondence comes to more than seven thousand pages. Often his most important ideas were first mooted in these letters, and sometimes he never went on to publish them in the scientific literature. The letters were copied, passed around, and studied, like teachings from on high.

Although Pauli is not generally associated quite as closely with the invention of quantum theory as are Bohr, Heisenberg, and Schrödinger, the letters demonstrate that he was crucially involved. No one understood the big picture as well as he did, and his colleagues respected him not only for this, but also for his caution and deep grounding in the classical traditions of physics. No less than Niels Bohr once referred to him as "the very conscience of the community of theoretical physicists" and "a solid rock in a turbulent sea" during the revolutionary years from 1925 to 1933 when quantum theory was born.

Charles Enz, his biographer and last assistant, writes that Pauli "was the critical analytical mind behind" the development of the theory: "Both Bohr and Heisenberg considered him the supreme judge." They used him as the sounding board for their latest speculations — and braced themselves for biting comments when they did. Pauli was the first person with whom Heisenberg shared his famous uncertainty principle, in a fourteen-page letter that ended with, "I know very well this is still unclear in many points, but I have to write you in order to make it somewhat clearer. Now I await your merciless criticism." He and Pauli had met in Munich, studying together under Sommerfeld, and remained friends for life. Their correspondence during the crucial period from 1925 to 1927, when Heisenberg invented quantum mechanics, indicates that much of his work was inspired by Pauli's insights and suggestions.

Though his caustic wit was legendary, Pauli could be charming and funny as well, and the huge circle of friends he amassed in his short life demonstrates that they could see through his barbs to the kind and generous heart beneath. "We always benefitted by Pauli's comments even if disagreement could temporarily prevail," wrote Bohr in gentle memoriam after the younger man died. "If he felt he had to change his views, he admitted it most gracefully, and accordingly it was a great comfort when new developments met with his approval."

Pauli's "merciless criticism" was invariably directed at vague or shoddy thinking. His friend and fellow physicist Paul Ehrenfest nicknamed him "Scourge of God." His most famous remark, tendered after reading a paper that he found especially wide of the mark, was, "Not only is it not right, it isn't even wrong!"

*
Professionally then, Wolfgang Pauli was thriving in 1930, the year the mysterious new particle began flitting about in his mind. He was world-renowned in physics circles and held a tenured professorship at the ETH. But his emotional life was on a different tack altogether.

He had moved to Zürich from Hamburg, where he had held various academic positions and made, as usual, a number of lifelong friends. His five years in that city may have been his most productive — he proposed the exclusion principle while he was there — but they were also the years when he began to lose his grip.

The town was famous for its night life, and he frequently availed himself of it with his friends. ("After the second bottle of wine or champagne," he wrote in a letter, "I usually become good company (which I never am when sober) and can, under these circumstances, make a very good impression on my surroundings, especially if they are feminine."). Unbeknownst to his companions, he often kept the party going after they went home, in the notorious red-light district of the city — which was named Sankt Pauli, believe it or not, another of Ehrenfest's nicknames for him. He smoked and drank in the seedy bars, got involved in brawls, picked up women — the staid professor by day, the desperate libertine by night. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

When he moved to Zürich, he was more circumspect. He participated in the intellectual ferment and elegant night life of the city, rubbing shoulders in the salons with the likes of James Joyce, Thomas Mann, and the artists Max Ernst and Hermann Haller. But he continued to satisfy his darker urges with periodic visits to Hamburg and Berlin.

Pauli had been raised believing he was Christian; he was baptized Catholic. As a child he was not told that his father, an internationally renowned physician and professor of chemistry, had changed his name and converted from Judaism to Catholicism as a young man, in order to advance his career in the anti-Semitic world of Austrian academia. His mother was Catholic and part Jewish, and oddly, both parents converted to Protestantism when Pauli was about eleven. His mother was especially devout. It is unclear when he learned of his Jewish heritage — it was probably sometime in his teens or early twenties — but he sensed the lack of clarity and was upset by it all through his formative years.

During his final year in Hamburg, his father, who was an inveterate womanizer, left his mother for a young sculptor about his son's age, and in November 1927, Pauli's mother committed suicide. He received the offer from the ETH that very month.

A year and a half after his mother's death, he left the Catholic Church and acknowledged his Jewish heritage. Six months after that, he married a German cabaret dancer, in an affair that was a disaster from the start: even before the marriage she announced that she was in love with another man, and she eventually left Pauli for that other man. Their union lasted less than a year, and the divorce was finalized on the twenty-sixth of November, 1930.

So, this thirty-year-old man had a lot on his mind in early December, as he pondered the problems of the nucleus.

*
The first pertained to a common radioactive process known as beta decay, in which the nucleus of one element transmutes spontaneously into the nucleus of a different element and gives off an electron, which is also known as a beta ray. The conundrum was that beta decay seemed to be violating one of the most hallowed laws of physics, the principle of energy conservation.

In practice, this principle is something like balancing your checkbook: Any physical system that is involved in any sort of "transaction," that is, changes in any way, must contain the same amount of energy after the transaction as it did beforehand. The energy may end up in different places, but it all has to go somewhere.

A specific example of beta decay would be the radioactive decay of carbon-14 into nitrogen-14. This is the process behind carbon dating, the method for determining the age of formerly living things, such as old pieces of wood or bone, which is widely used in archeology and geology. Carbon is the sixth element in the periodic table, which means that its nucleus contains six positively charged protons, and the "14" denotes atomic weight. This means, according to present knowledge, that along with its six protons, carbon-14 has eight neutrally charged neutrons in its nucleus, which adds up to a total of fourteen "nucleons."

A significant contributor to the confusion in 1930 was the fact that the neutron had yet to be discovered. The primitive theory of the time held that the nucleus was made up of positively charged protons and negatively charged electrons, so that the carbon-14 nucleus, to stay with this example, would have comprised fourteen protons and eight electrons. It was known to have an electrical charge of six, so the electrons would have offset just the right amount of positive charge contributed by the protons.

The carbon-14 nucleus beta decays into nitrogen-14, an isotope of the seventh element in the periodic table, which, according to the old way of thinking, would have comprised fourteen protons — the same as in carbon-14 — and seven electrons, one less than before. This took care of the change in electric charge, since the nitrogen nucleus has a charge of seven; and it all seemed to add up, since an electron is caught speeding away after the decay. Until you looked at energy.

In 1905, Einstein had demonstrated the equivalence of energy (E) and mass (m) with his famous equation E=mc2. (The letter c denotes the speed of light, which is a constant.) So, from an energy standpoint, before the decay we have simply the mass-energy of the carbon-14 nucleus, and afterward we have the mass-energies of the nitrogen nucleus and the electron, plus the so-called kinetic energy that the electron carries by virtue of its velocity. Since the masses of the nitrogen nucleus and the electron are fixed and add up to something less than the mass of the original carbon nucleus, the nuclear model of 1930 predicted that every electron emitted in a beta decay must emerge with the same kinetic energy, or velocity: just enough to make up the mass-energy difference between the one particle that existed before the decay and the two particles that existed after.

The problem was that the electrons emerged with a range, or spectrum, of energies. If they had all emerged with the highest energy in the range, everything would have been fine, but this was rarely the case. (And, in fact, we now know that it never actually happens.) A small amount of energy seemed to be disappearing somehow.

This problem had been festering for more than twenty years. Lise Meitner, an Austrian experimentalist with a background in theory, and Otto Hahn, an accomplished German radiochemist, had begun investigating the beta ray spectrum in 1907, expecting to find no spectrum at all. At first, they found what they wanted to — an uncharacteristic blunder for this superb experimental team. But it didn't take long for them to identify some flaws in their methods, improve them, and in 1911 reveal the first confusing evidence that the electrons did emerge in a spectrum. Meitner, however, the theorist of the two, was not ready to accept her own result. She made various suggestions about problems with the new experiment or secondary processes in the nucleus that might modify an initially pure beam. Most people's doubts were put to rest in 1914, when James Chadwick, working under the great Ernest Rutherford in the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England, completed what is now considered to be the first definitive experiment proving the existence of a spectrum. But Meitner continued to dig in her heels. This led to new experiments and other scientists joining the cause, including Charles Drummond Ellis, another Briton. The quest dragged on for another thirteen years, until 1927, when Ellis and his colleague William Wooster not only ruled out secondary processes but also proved that some energy was definitely going missing, because the average speed of the emerging electrons was too low to make up the mass-energy difference between the one nucleus that existed before the decay and the new nucleus and the electron that existed after. One test wasn't enough to convince the entire community, however, especially Meitner. So it wasn't until she and her assistant Wilhelm Orthmann confirmed and extended Ellis and Wooster's result two years later, at the very end of 1929, that the physics community was forced to accept the fact that something fishy was going on in beta decay.

The atom had been providing so many surprises over the previous few decades that the architects of the new quantum theory, Niels Bohr in particular, were willing to question any classical truth. In a manuscript he sent to Pauli in mid-1929, Bohr suggested that the missing energy might indicate that the hallowed conservation law did not hold in the quantum realm.

This offended Pauli's deep understanding of symmetry in the physical world. (Few laypeople realize the extent to which beauty and elegance motivate the theoretical physicist, and symmetry principles not only underlie much of that beauty, they are also among the theorist's most powerful tools.) He didn't see why electric charge would be conserved in beta decay, while energy, which was basically the central theme in Einstein's highly successful theory of special relativity, would not. He responded to his mentor with characteristic candor. (Pauli had studied with Bohr at his institute in Copenhagen.) "I must say that your paper gave me very little satisfaction.... We really don't know what is the matter here. You don't know either.... In any case, let this [matter] rest for a good long time, and let the stars shine in peace!" Bohr never did publish the manuscript.

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "The Telescope in the Ice"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Mark Bowen.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martins Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Making Mistakes

Part 1: The Birth and Youth of the Neutrino

Chapter 1: This Crazy Child

Chapter 2: Infancy and Youth

Chapter 3: From Poltergeist to Particle

Part 2: The Dream of Neutrino Astronomy

Chapter 4: Wisconsin-Style Physics

Chapter 5: Peaceful Exploration by Interested Scientists Throughout the World

Chapter 6: Science at Its Best

Part 3: Touching the Mystery

Chapter 7: Solid-State DUMAND

Chapter 8: Enter Bruce

Chapter 9: The Crossover

Chapter 10: A Supernova of Science

Chapter 11: Doubling Down

Chapter 12: Glory Days

Chapter 13: Night on the Ice

Chapter 14: The First Nus

Chapter 15: The Peacock and Eva Events

Chapter 16: Y2K at the Pole

Part 4: The Real Thing

Chapter 17: Sometimes You Get What You Ask For

Chapter 18: No New Starts

Chapter 19: The Coming of Yeck

Chapter 20: Failure and Success

Chapter 21: As Quickly As It All Began

Chapter 22: Crossing the Threshold

Epilogue: The Dawn of Multi-Messenger Astronomy

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