Beginning of the Road

By Dane Sorensen

May 15, 1995

Tis spring and a young manís fancy turns to muons.  At least that is what the folks hiding down the Soudan Underground Mine State park think.  Last week the Soudan Underground Research Site had their annual Open House.  As I have always felt, there is more art and science per capita in our northern reaches than in more populated environs.

The whole fate of the universe may be revealed in the experiment taking place down in the Soudan Mine.  It is not certain how long the universe is going to last.  If we have too much matter then someday the expansion of the universe will stop and reverse.  Everything will be eventually condensed into a giant black hole.  Maybe a big bang will happen again or maybe it will just evaporate in a few zillion years.  But the universe just might end another way if the boys down the Soudan shaft are right.

They think protons just might be mortal.  In a mere 1032 years a quark inside the proton will fizzle away causing the other two quarks to buzz off.  Since 1032 years is just an average, that means that some protons are already checking out early.  That is what several governments and universities are betting on.  What they win, if they are right, besides cinching the Nobel Prize, is science immortality Ė at least for 1032 years.  If the expansion of the universe is infinite, or longer than 1032 years, we will not only run out of oil, but protons, too!

The scientists down in the Soudan Mine are hoarding 6x1032 particles in their Soudan 2 Detector.  I suppose that is why they are hiding a half mile down.  Actually, by watching 6x1032 particles the scientists hope to see six proton decays a year.  So far none have been confirmed, so donít stop making those mortgage payments.

Most of what they see is several million muons (cosmic rays) a year zipping through the 1000 ton detector.  If they tried this experiment on the surface they would see over a billion cosmic rays zipping through the detector.  If they tried this experiment on the surface they would see over a billion cosmic rays zipping through the detector.  That would cause a lot of false alarms that would make it very difficult to find six proton deaths.  While a half mile of rock helps filter out most of the muons, the scientists still have to deal with 333,333 false alarms to every possible proton decay.  A scientist spending 10 seconds looking at each event, would have to look at his computer screen for 10 hours a day for over three and a half months to find a single proton decay.  Talk about too much TV!

Later that same day we watched the Grand March of the 65 couples attending the Ely Junior/Senior Prom.  This event must cost the parents almost as much as the $10 million Soudan Research Site!  The ladies looked sophisticated and the gents looked cool.  For my youngest kidlet, it was a day of dazzling atoms and dresses.  Where else, but in our beautiful area, could such a cultural mix exist?



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