York physicist set to join international study of neutrinos ‘in the wild’

For physicist Scott Menary, the wilderness of northwestern Ontario beckons with a rare opportunity to trap neutrinos, a friendly but elusive species of subatomic particle that may hold the key to understanding the universe from just after the Big Bang to the present.

Scott MenaryRight: Neutrino hunter Scott Menary

Menary, Chair of York’s Department of Physics & Astronomy in the Faculty of Science & Engineering, is spearheading the Canadian arm of a proposed international project to study a beam of neutrinos produced in Fermilab (Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory), a multi-million-dollar facility located in Batavia, Illinois, just west of Chicago. The beam, which is generated by the Tevatron, the world’s highest-energy particle accelerator, passes through the earth on a 450-mile journey to an old iron mine in northern Minnesota and eventually exits the ground mere kilometres from Yonge Street – otherwise known as the Trans-Canada Highway – approximately 65 kilometres east of Fort Frances.

“The neutrinos are just leaving the earth right there in the woods and flying off into space,” says Menary. “It’s an amazing opportunity; physics just waiting to be done.”

Neutrinos make up much of what surrounds us, comprising about half the mass of the universe. They are produced in huge numbers in the fusion process that fuels stars. Researchers theorize that, as the only surviving particles left over from the moments after the Big Bang, they could explain one of the great mysteries of science: What happened to all the antimatter that was produced at the birth of the universe?

“Our challenge will be to catch them,” Menary says. “Despite the fact that there are hundreds of billions of neutrinos from the Sun going straight through each of us right now, you need a huge piece of equipment to catch even one.”

The proposed project will use a 50,000-tonne tank of liquid argon to trap the particles, in order to study ‘neutrino oscillations’, or the quantum mechanical phenomenon demonstrated when particles change states as they traverse space. Because neutrinos so rarely interact with atoms, Menary says it will take about a decade just to gather a significant number for study. He hopes to have the project up and running by 2010, a wait he describes as “fairly short term…for a high-energy physicist.”