In a big development for the nation’s scientific community, India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) project has got a new lease of life with the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) finally granting it environmental clearance to set up its lab in Bodi West hills of Tamil Nadu’s Theni district.
However, while giving permission as a special case, the panel also made it clear that INO would still require a thumbs up from the state’s Wildlife Board and Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB).
Here’s all you need to know about Neutrinos and the INO, India’s most ambitious basic science project till date!
An elusive elementary particle that travels at near light speeds, Neutrinos are one of the universe’s essential and most abundant ingredients. Born from violent cosmic events like exploding stars and gamma ray bursts, they can move as easily through lead as humans can move through the air.
In fact, about 100 trillion neutrinos pass through your body every second that you stand in the sunlight. But because these nearly massless particles don’t interact with any of the particles in your body, you never notice them. Which is why these tiny ‘ghost particles’ are notoriously difficult to pin down.
The combination of this abundant yet elusive presence and the important role they play in the universe is why neutrinos can help scientists understand some of the most fundamental questions in physics — such as understanding the evolution of the universe, figuring out the energy production mechanism in the Sun and why the universe is made up of matter, not antimatter.
Nicknamed the ‘blueprint of nature’ by scientists, neutrinos are also an important tool for mankind to learn how matter evolved from simple particles into more complex composites, creating everything around us.
Interestingly, India was the first country in the world to detect atmospheric neutrinos in 1965 during the Kolar Gold Field (KGF) experiment in Karnataka.
Sponsored by the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), KGF’s underground lab — located deep within what was then one of the largest active gold mines in the world — served as a training ground for young and aspiring particle physicists from 1951 to 1992.
It also hosted path-breaking international collaborations, including the one that first discovered atmospheric neutrinos (India’s only major contribution to experimental particle physics).
After four decades of conducting pioneering experiments, the facility was finally shut down in 1992 after the mine’s vast network of tunnels got flooded due to disuse (as the gold reserves had dwindled, the mining operations had stopped). However, soon after, India’s particle physicists got together to shape a plan for a new place to study fundamental particles and forces.
In 2002, this group of scientists (led by TIFR physicist Naba Mondal, who had researched at Kolar for over a decade) officially announced the ambitious INO project to create a national underground ‘neutrino telescope’.
To implement this vision, Inter-Institutional Centre for High Energy Physics (IICHEP) was established in Madurai.
As per the proposed project, the underground facility to study atmospheric neutrinos will be built in a 1,300-m deep cavern nestled at the base of a monolithic hill in the Bodi West Hills. The reason for doing this is that the stable and dense Charnockite rock will filter all other cosmic rays and provide an opportunity to detect the feeble signatures of these shy particles.
Moreover, if completed, INO will house the largest magnet in the world, — a 50,000-tonne iron calorimeter, four times larger than CERN’s Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) detector’s magnet. The size of the detector would allow up to three neutrino detections per day.
Interestingly, the INO project has been gaining urgency in the recent years with China announcing the construction of a similar neutrino observatory in its Jiangmen province. Like the INO, the Jiangmen Underground Neutrino Observatory is also expected to be completed by 2020-2022.
The country which wins this scientific race will find it easier to establish its primacy in atmospheric neutrinos research.
However, the INO project also has its critics. Many argue, among other things, that using explosives to build a subterranean facility — even controlled blasts that limit the impact of vibrations — is a threat to the fragile ecology of the Western Ghats.
Answering this question, D. Indumathi (physicist and outreach coordinator of INO) told The Hindu,
“This is exactly like making a 2-inch hole to insert a pipe through a 10-foot-high wall. It will not affect the stability of the hill. Even the Chennai Metro Rail project can dig just metres under the buildings without damaging them because of advances in technology.”
The second concern is radiation, though particle physicists say that the risk is negligible and that these allegations arise from misconceptions in basic physics. According to them, there is no scope for radioactivity or for leaching of water and that these facts have been explained to the panel (in the presence of a DRDO expert).
In fact, the scientists of INO have spent time talking to the residents of Pottipuram (the village near the proposed site), fielding questions like whether the experiment will produce a radiation hazard (it won’t) and whether the village cattle will continue to have access to the shrub-covered hill (they will).
Detailed answers to questions on the impact of various aspects of the project have also been outlined in the INO website.
Yet another concern is that spending crores on scientific research of this kind is a waste of money. Scientists counter this argument by highlighting the enormous achievements 20th century has brought in on the pillars of relativity and quantum mechanics.
Furthermore, they point out that the INO faculty will give Indian particle physics students the chance to do cutting-edge research at home. This counter-argument gains significance considering the fact that more than half the Nobel Prizes in physics in the past 50 years have been awarded to basic research in particle physics — this includes the 2015 Prize for the discovery of neutrino oscillations!.
Thus, while public apprehensions about projects like INO are understandable, they also illustrate the fact that communication between the scientific community and citizens needs to be more basic and more democratic. At a time when India is battling a brain drain epidemic, doing this could give its scientific community a much-needed boost while making science accessible to the larger public.
(Edited By Vinayak Hegde)