Amidst the hoopla of the Republican National Convention,
it is easy
for other news items, even those of local interest, to be overlooked.
One item which might otherwise go unnoticed, but which could have
important implications for science in this country, is the changing
fortune of a proposed new experiment to measure the properties of
fundamental particles called neutrinos at Pacific Gas and Electric
Co.'s Diablo Canyon nuclear reactor facility.
The possibility that this experiment could take place on
Canyon site has had a roller-coaster ride. At one point it looked as if
U.S. scientists would have to go to China to perform an experiment that
would be best carried out right in our own back yard, and which could
leave a scientific legacy that would last for generations.
I was privileged to spend a delightful long weekend in
Obispo earlier this year, when I gave a public lecture at Cal Poly
entitled "The Origin of Everything: Life, Neutrinos, and Star Trek."
There are very few places in the world where it might have been
appropriate to present this eclectic combination, but Cal Poly was one
of them, in large part because of the exciting possibility that Diablo
might house an experiment that could affect the future of our
understanding of a host of fundamental issues in physics and cosmology,
including questions as fundamental as: What is the origin of all matter
in the universe? and How will the universe end?
The Diablo Canyon reactor is tailor-made for the
experiment. All nuclear reactors produce neutrinos, exotic and largely
innocuous elementary particles that are so weakly interacting that most
of them can go right through the Earth without being stopped. Yet in
spite of their weak interactions, they play a very important role in
nature, and four Nobel Prizes have been awarded for progress in
understanding the nature of neutrinos and their astrophysical impacts.
In order to detect these particles, large detectors must often be
built, usually underground in order to shield out the ever-present
background of cosmic ray particles from space.
What makes the Diablo Canyon reactor so special is that
located right next to a neighboring mountainside into which a tunnel,
about the size of a normal railway tunnel, could be dug. Ultimately the
site would resemble a mile-long wine cave, with detectors located on
railway cars so that they could be positioned at various locations
within the tunnel, leaving no other visible impact upon the environment.
Originally PG&E was concerned about the
environmental impact of
the project and possible worries in the community about a construction
project at Diablo Canyon. Happily, it now appears as if much of the
community is supportive of this project, so PG&E is willing to take
another look at it.
If the experiment goes off as planned, Diablo Canyon
will be placed
alongside the other locations where, throughout history, fundamental
progress in our understanding of nature took place. To paraphrase the
words of Robert Wilson, the first director of the Fermi National
Accelerator Laboratory, who was asked whether it would contribute to
the defense of the nation. He said: "No, but it will help keep the
nation worth defending!"
One often hears horror stories regarding the level of
literacy in this country, and it is often difficult to explain the
importance of doing fundamental physics experiments on subjects that
seem far removed from daily life. It is heartening to see an instance
where an educated and interested public can rally behind a fundamental
science project that has essentially no down-side for the community. It
demonstrates yet one more reason why your area is such an attractive
place to live.
Lawrence M. Krauss is chair of the physics department at
Western Reserve University and an internationally recognized
cosmologist, as well as an author, columnist and commentator.
His books include "The Physics of Star Trek," "Atom" and
his newest book, "Hiding in the Mirror," to be released in 2005.