Origins ANTARCTICA, Scientific Journeys from McMurdo to the Pole
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  © Per Olof Hulth
  Preparation for drilling holes for AMANDA's optical sensors begins with a sled bringing equipment.

A literary essay about AMANDA by Francis Halzen

Big science, as often as not, hinges on small moments. Once the grants have been secured and the politics navigated, the ground broken and the visionary promises made, when banks of computers flicker to life and fingers curl above keyboards, ready to flash the first discoveries via E-mail, a decade’s work can still come crashing down in the final hour—a castle erected in the thin air of theory, too weak to withstand true gravity.

Last August, when Dennis S. Peacock came to visit my office at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he must have had something like that in the back of his mind. As the head of the Antarctic sciences section for the National Science Foundation (NSF), Peacock had helped funnel some $10 million into building the world’s largest neutrino telescope deep in the Antarctic ice. Would we have anything to show for the investment? Or would our project go the way of its predecessor, partly built in seawater off the coast of Hawai’i and then abandoned after nearly twenty years of work?

Our telescope—also known as the Antarctic Muon and Neutrino Detector Array, or AMANDA—had been detecting neutrinos for some time, but we had yet to finish analyzing our first data. Or so I thought. Instead, when Peacock and I arrived at the desk of my graduate student, Rellen R. Hardtke, she had a surprise waiting for me. Two of her colleagues had spent the night finishing the analysis, she explained with a smile. Then she calmly called up an image on her computer screen: the first precision map of a high-energy neutrino event ever recorded.

Hardtke’s screen showed a faint blue line streaking diagonally across columns of black dots. Most of the dots, each of which represented a photomultiplier sunk in the ice, were small and black. But a few, clustered along the line, were blue or green or red, and two, near the beginning of the line, were bright orange and very large. At five in the morning on October 12, 1997, the diagram told us, a neutrino—one of nature’s smallest and most elusive elementary particles—had entered the earth in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, between Midway Island and the Aleutians, hurtled straight through the planet, and collided head-on with a proton on the underside of the Antarctic ice. Two kilometers beneath the surface, our grid of photomultipliers had picked up a subatomic spark from that collision as it flew upward through the ice and flared past them for about a microsecond.

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