Physics works in a strange manner. In order to understand the mysteries and complexities of our vast universe, you often have to enter tiny underground holes to study matter. This is exactly what a group of scientists aim to do with the Indian-based Neutrino Observatory (INO). The observatory, first proposed in 2001, aims to study neutrinos, which are fundamental particles that we have a lot to find out about. They are extremely important in the universe's larger scheme of things, and are central to this episode of The Intersection.
India's connection with neutrinos goes back decades to a set of experiments sponsored by the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) and conducted at the Kolar gold fields in Karnataka. In 1965, the experiment's detector was one of the first in the world to detect atmospheric neutrinos.
Unfortunately, with the mines shutting down because of financial constraints, the experiments had to be terminated by 1992. This underlined the need for building a dedicated neutrino detector in India, which, Professor Naba K. Mondal, a senior professor at the TIFR and the project director of INO, says in this paper, was being talked about since 1989. The paper provides an update on the status of the INO. However, interestingly enough, even though the paper, which was published in 2003, estimated that the feasibility study of the INO will be completed in two years, the observatory is yet to see the light of day.
From political troubles to legal wrangles and opposition from the local populace, the project and its scientists have had to deal with a number of problems. Professor Indhumathi, who works at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai, provides us with a first-hand account of being on field, talking about how she met the locals, trying to allay fears ranging from the mountain at the proposed site falling down to radiation concerns.
All this, Padmaparna points out, is frustrating the Indian scientific establishment. The proposed experiments at the INO can help solve what is known as the "hierarchy problem." The solution to this problem, which essentially is about finding out what type of neutrino (there are three) has what mass, has a much larger implication - it may help figure out which one of the various models of the universe that scientists currently have, best suits the real universe.
*For a deeper understanding of the political opposition to the INO project, you can refer to this March 2015 article in the Frontline and to know more about how neutrinos might benefit us, you can read this June 2015 piece by Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam and Srijan Pal Singh in The Hindu.
Listen to all our podcasts here.