In order to catch something very small, sometimes you have to build something very big.
When Francis Halzen wanted to study neutrinos — tiny, subatomic particles that fly through just about everything including you and me — he conceived of something colossal.
“Our idea was to use a block of ice, a kilometer in size, that is a mile deep under the geographic South Pole,” Halzen, who is a physicist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in a Smithsonian Magazine video for the American Ingenuity Awards.
The result was the largest particle physics detector ever built located in some of the harshest most inhospitable conditions on Earth: Antarctica.
For his pioneering efforts that led toward the construction of the IceCube Neutrino Observatory in operation today, Smithsonian Magazine honored Halzen on Oct. 16 with the 2014 American Ingenuity Award in the physical sciences, presented by Stephen Hawking.
Halzen’s brain-child, IceCube, has been fully functional since 2010, but it was a long road — more than 20 years — to get there.
The IceCube Neutrino Observatory consists of dozens of holes drilled deep into the Antarctic ice. Scientists then lower neutrino-detecting sensors into the holes. Below is an image of one of the holes:
In 2013, his work paid off. IceCube discovered what Holzen had set out to find: a specific type of high-energy neutrino, called cosmic neutrinos. These neutrinos come from powerful celestial events like black holes, the active cores of certain galaxies, and massive stellar explosions called supernovae. They were the highest-energy neutrinos ever observed and the first cosmic neutrinos ever detected.
The discovery was a breakthrough for the field of astronomy because neutrinos offer astronomers a unique look at what’s happening at the core of many powerful cosmic sources.
Before IceCube’s revolutionary find, astronomers had only radiation, in the form of visible light, x-rays, gamma rays, and more, with which to investigate the universe. Now, they have particles, too, in the form of neutrinos.
Neutrinos are a byproduct of nuclear fusion, so studying them allows scientists to observe the high-energy physical processes happening inside black holes, active galaxies, and supernovae. The details of how these sources form and evolve over time is still being understood and is an active field of research.
“I love to learn,” Halzen told Smithsonian Magazine. “Just understanding things that you thought you could never understand, that is the great pleasure of doing physics.”
Check out the video below in which Holzen talks about how this monumental, game-changing project came about, how it works, and what makes IceCube so unique.
Each year, Smithsonian recognises ten of the most innovative people in America. Some of this year’s honorees include: Hugh Herr was awarded most innovative in technology for his work in developing bionic limbs.Janet Echelman won in visual arts for her inspirational sky-high sculptures. And Steve Ramirez and Xu Liu won in natural sciences for their work on how memories can form and be edited.
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