Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Under Ice and Sea - Looking beyond and beneath

Today I learn of telescopes under the sea. In the mediterranean in fact. Which are measuring neutrinos and waiting to find the very rare unstable ones in order to find out more about how the world works. These telescopes have the names Antares, Nestor and of course somehow totally fittingly, Nemo. It is thought by placing these telescopes under the sea, with the refraction of water, these neutrinos may be more easily spotted. But if that is not bizarre enough, deep in the South Pole, there is a telescope embedded in Antartic ice. It is called IceCube. Again, the same purpose. Again a romantic setting, so extreme and a whereabouts so secret too, that it brings to mind HG Wells, Jules Verne and other worlds, and you realise even more that science fiction may be turning into science fact...that one follows the other in an endless cycle of creative discovery and interpretation. It is ineluctible in its beauty.

All this comes to light when I sit with my office mate Arnaud, learning about the 30 year old discipline - Astro particle physics. Neither pure astronomy, or pure particle physics, but a fusion of the two, this emerging science used to be regarded with deep suspicion and is a term which has only started being used since the 90s. But with the rise of technology which can probe so deeply into the subatomic world, measuring the elusive cosmic ray and capturing them however fleetingly at last, astro-particle physics is coming of age.

And if the worlds of ice and water are not enough, there are also deep underground chambers which are being used too, to look at neutrinos - the great discovery of the physicist Wolfgang Pauli. Every second from CERN, billions of neutrinos are sent through the earth across the continent, beneath the Vatican to Gran Sasso Laboratory 120km east of Rome in Italy. The idea is to try to capture the one which will interact with another atomic nucleus, because they may contain the secrets of how the Universe exists. The exception will proove the rule. And the rule is, that neutrinos tell us how the sun shines and may have been the vital ingredient which led to the disappearance of anti-matter when matter became the dominant force in our world.

If this all sounds too theoretical, just look beyond. Astro-particle physics is said to have potential application for the environment. Deep in the heart of the Argentinian pampas, 3000 km2 is covered by light detectors. This technology can be used to monitor the atmosphere. And in a world under seige, this technology more than ever is needed...

Somehow, fittingly, that afternoon I am at a lecture at the UN given by Jeffrey Sachs. At the end, many of us are in tears and he has a standing ovation for 10 minutes. It is an extraordinary moment when he exorts the world to realise the catastrophe we have released on ourselves in the shape of climate change, and what we do know about it, is only the best news. The worst is yet to come, and we cant sit, pontificate, and deal with climate change as if it is trade negotation or a political football. It aint. He proposes an ecological capitalism, in which the environment and ecology are finally aligned and the values are placed in the survival of the planet and not in the banks.

"We're in the age of this planet where human activity dominates the earth's processes," he said. "Humanity has become so large in absolute number and in economic activity that we have overtaken earth processes in vital ways to the point of changing the climate, the hydrologic cycle.

Listen to his speech at

and see if you can remain unmoved. Like the physicists at CERN, somehow Jeffrey Sachs takes immensity, in his case in world economics and the environment, and transformed it into an equation and series of solutions which could transform the way we live in our world....

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