Best of INK talks

Anil Ananthaswamy : What it takes to do Extreme Astrophysics


If we think that our comfort comes for a price that our fathers pay out of their salaries, we need to think again. Just like beauty which is skin deep, mysteries are deep too. Deep into the universe, deep under the bowels of the earth’s skin, deep in the annals of the journey that Man has undertaken over the centuries. And it takes much more than brains and intelligence. It takes perseverance, strength & courage to undertake the journey of unfolding the mysteries of nature and Universe.

In this 15 minute talk, the very passionate science writer, Anil Ananthaswamy takes his audience on a roller coaster ride to some of the extreme places on earth where man has been conducting experiments relentlessly to uncover the mystery behind the unknown, 96% of the Universe which we know nothing about, better known as Dark Matter (23%) and Dark Energy(73%). He considers these journeys as nothing short of pilgrimages. You would understand after you have gone through the talk!

The journey that he embarked upon to document the quest that mankind has undertaken to probe into the finer details of the Cosmos is mesmerizing in ways more than one. Those extreme places are not only a proof of the genius called science and engineering but also a testimony of all the lives that have been put to stake to get one hint from the unknown universe towards revealing itself to man. Men and women are working in the most hostile places, often risking their lives to delve deeper into the realms of the ever expanding cosmos.

He takes us through a half mile deep underground laboratory in Northern Minnesota where scientists are trying to find particles of dark matter which might accidentally hit their detectors. These experiments cannot be done on the surface because stray cosmic rays and even our own body’s radioactivity can disrupt it. Extreme environmental silence is needed to listen to the faintest ping of a single dark matter particle.

Our next stop is the largest lake in the world, Lake Baikal in Siberia, Russia. Neutrino observatories have been stationed here because neutrino (generated by the collision of dark matter particles) when comes in contact with water molecules, produces a flash of blue light which can be studied and hence the experiment could be traced back to dark matter. The scientists have to work during the 2 months of harsh winter where they use the frozen ice sheet as their basecamp and do all the experiments. Because of the constrained budget, they cannot work during the summers. They dig holes in the thick sheet and dive into that really cold water to immerse the equipment 1km deep inside the lake which is around 2kms in depth! 20 years and 20 million have gone into this project looking for particles which may or may not exist.

Similarly, there are four largest telescopes of the world on the top of Chile Desert. Each of them is 8.2m in diameter and used to study the expansion of Universe with time. Being in a desert with no sign of life around is important for the scientists involved in this project because the dry air and cloud free high altitude gives the telescopes 300 days of clear skies.

From deserts to icelands, wherever there is environmental silence, scientists have risked everything for the sake of unraveling of knowledge. our next stop is McMurdo Station Antarctica where a gigantic helium balloon carries a two ton heavy instrument 40kms high into the stratosphere to conduct the experiments and then the payload is brought down again. And it is not as easy as it sounds. The erratic weather down south plays a spoiler. The installation of that balloon takes around 2 hours and if the weather turns bad, they have to immediately pack the cellophane thin, two ton heavy balloon fabric into a box and stamp on it barefoot so that it fits into the box. This in extreme winter and cannot wear their shoes because that might tear the fabric. The balloon requires 24 tons of helium to take flight and the setting up requires them to work with bare hands in sub zero temperature. Yet, one look at the balloon taking flight and all that pain turns into hoots and cheers and whistles. The video of the launch is there in the talk.

This extreme science needs extreme will power and extreme environmental silence. And we need to preserve these silent places in order to be able to look beyond the known. There are a bunch of people out there who are risking much more than their lives to move from the unknown to the known when they could have been anywhere in the world doing something more safer and materialistically fulfilling. The least we can do is not disturb them if not anything else.

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This entry was published on July 8, 2012 at 7:22 pm and is filed under Inspiration, Science & Technology. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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