The neutrinophone: It's not for you. (But it is cool)

May 24, 2012 by Joseph McClain

First of all, the neutrinophone isn’t really a phone. It has the potential to be used for communication across immense distances—including into outer space—but even Jeff Nelson says the neutrinophone’s debut was “little more than an outreach stunt.”

Nelson is the Cornelia B. Talbot Term Distinguished Associate Professor of Physics at William & Mary. He explains that the neutrinophone demonstration was a side project stemming from neutrino research at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Nelson is one of a number of William & Mary scientists involved in a collaboration at Fermilab known as MINERvA.

Neutrinos are mysterious subatomic particles emitted in unimaginable numbers by nuclear reactions. Despite their high numbers, scientists are just now learning about the characteristics of neutrinos. William & Mary’s physicists are involved in several large multinational collaborations aimed at learning about the properties of neutrinos. In addition to MINERvA and the other Fermilab experiments, William & Mary researchers are involved in other neutrino investigations, most notably the Daya Bay initiative in China.

Most neutrinos passing through earth come from the sun’s nuclear furnaces, but they also are created by nuclear power plants and other such facilities. Neutrinos are hard to detect because they interact so rarely with anything. The Surry power plant across the river from Williamsburg emits neutrinos by the billions, but Nelson says you can live your whole life at William & Mary and the odds are against your body experiencing more than one single interaction from a Surry-generated neutrino.

Nelson explains that the neutrinophone used the tertiary beam from an accelerator at Fermilab. The accelerator, he says, is about two kilometers in circumference.

“It uses an intense proton beam,” he said. “We take that proton beam and it hits a target and particles called mesons come out. The mesons decay into neutrinos.”

The beam of neutrinos  travels through hundreds of meters of rock on the way to the MINERvA detector, which Nelson explains is designed to study neutrino interactions in detail. For communication over the neutrinophone, the physicists used a simple 1-0 binary code.

“If you saw neutrinos, it was a zero; if there weren’t any neutrinos, it was a one,” he explained. “There are standard encoding patterns, ASCII is one of the ones that is used on the computer that tell you what letter corresponds to a series of so many digits of binary bits.”

The first message sent by the neutrinophone, when decoded, was “neutrino.” Nelson says the scientists aren’t to blame for the lack of originality.

“It wasn’t the neutrino physicists who picked that,” he said. “We probably would’ve done something that we would’ve thought was more interesting and challenging but the communications guys think are cool so that was what they wanted.”

As a practical communications tool, the neutrinophone sits on the border of science and science fiction. Nelson notes that Star Trek characters use neutrino communications, but there are a number of scientific and engineering challenges to creating an interplanetary neutrinophone.

He said that one such challenge involves the difficulty in aiming the “gun barrel” of the neutrino beam. Another problem involves a flashlight-like effect, whereby the encoded neutrino beam widens and weakens as it travels through space, soon becoming lost in the stew of coming from the sun and other natural sources of the particles.

Nelson says that earth-bound neutrino communications are a more realistic feasible in the future.

“Think of, say, a submarine,” he said. “You could have a neutrino detector that’s mostly liquid—a dedicated ballast tank with material that fluoresces and that would be much more sensitive. That would be feasible. You can imagine the submarine going to an area and accepting its secret message and then moving off again.”

Explore further: Infrared imaging technique operates at high temperatures

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

New results confirm standard neutrino theory

Feb 16, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- In its search for a better understanding of the mysterious neutrinos, a group of experimenters at DOE’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory has announced results that confirm the theory ...

CERN neutrino project on target

Aug 16, 2005

Scientists at CERN announced the completion of the target assembly for the CERN neutrinos to Gran Sasso project, CNGS. On schedule for start-up in May 2006, CNGS will send a beam of neutrinos through the Earth to the Gran ...

Researchers send 'wireless' message using neutrinos

Mar 14, 2012

(PhysOrg.com) -- A group of scientists led by researchers from the University of Rochester and North Carolina State University have for the first time sent a message using a beam of neutrinos – nearly ...

Daya Bay antineutrino detectors exceed performance goals

Mar 01, 2012

(PhysOrg.com) -- After just three months of operation, the Daya Bay Reactor Neutrino Experiment has far surpassed expectations, recording tens of thousands of particle interactions and paving the way to a better understanding ...

Neutrinos change flavors while crossing Japan

Jun 15, 2011

By shooting a beam of neutrinos through a small slice of the Earth under Japan, physicists say they've caught the particles changing their stripes in new ways. These observations may one day help explain why the universe ...

Recommended for you

Infrared imaging technique operates at high temperatures

Jan 23, 2015

From aerial surveillance to cancer detection, mid-wavelength infrared (MWIR) radiation has a wide range of applications. And as the uses for high-sensitivity, high-resolution imaging continue to expand, MWIR sources are becoming ...

Football physics and the science of Deflategate

Jan 23, 2015

News reports say that 11 of the 12 game balls used by the New England Patriots in their AFC championship game against the Indianapolis Colts were deflated, showing about 2 pounds per square inch (psi) less ...

Physicists find a new way to slow the speed of light

Jan 23, 2015

(Phys.org)—A team of physicists working at the University of Glasgow has found a way to slow the speed of light that does not involve running it through a medium such as glass or water. Instead, as they ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.