Glass Magazine

interview-january 2010



Neutrinos in the nightclub

An attempt to domesticate hard core science and bring it back to a hand made scale

In one sense, we are a very clever species.  Our scientific models are so good that we have predicted bizarre but demonstrable notions such as the relativity of time and the behaviour of subatomic particles.  Hooray for us.  But there is something wrong… 

When Newton described nearly all heavenly phenomena with three simple rules, it implied that God no longer had to be constantly babysitting his creation.  A big shift in thinking for many people, but one that was comprehendible.  And then modern physics, sparked by Einstein, made things weird.  It turns out that there is a level of reality that most of us don’t understand.  Even though GPS tracking units in every-day items such as mobile phones would not work without accounting for gravity’s affect on time, most of us cannot wrap our heads around the idea that time is not a constant.

And now, the plot thickens.  Even though our current understanding of physics (“The Standard Model”) allows boffins to work on a scale that is beyond a common sensory experience, they still can’t unify the foundations.  Now, they seem to be on the cusp of yet another great leap forward.  The T2K (Tokai to Kamioka) project, which will look for certain neutrino oscillations, may provide some answers. 

To explore what these answers will mean for the average person, Glass interviewed David Wark, physics professor at Imperial College London, as he participated in a bold interpretive installation, “Super K Sonic Booooum”.  Following that, we spoke with the installation’s designer. 
Glass (to Wark): Is it fair to say that our standard model of physics is broken?
Wark: I wouldn’t say that it’s broken at all.  Science always consists of things that we know very well, and we would be surprised if anyone refuted them (such as classical electromagnetism).  But we also can’t explain certain things, like the lack of anti-matter in the Universe.  This leads us to suspect that there are new laws that have yet to be discovered.  This, of course, gets everyone very excited, but it doesn’t mean physics is broken.
Glass: You’re working on a project called T2K that is designed to detect neutrino oscillations.  How would finding these help to explain the lack of anti-matter in the Universe?
Wark:  We know that there are these particles called neutrinos, but we don’t fully understand how they work.  Neutrinos have been seen to change from one type to another, but we don’t know if they do it the same for neutrinos and anti-neutrinos.  If they do, then this would constitute a new law of physics, and it might help to explain the anti-matter deficiency.
Glass: So, is this a shot in the dark?
Wark: When neutrino oscillations were first postulated in the 1960s, they were mathematically possible, but they were completely speculative.  We now know they exist, but we don’t know why or what else they might lead to, so we are trying to understand them more deeply. 
Glass: If it does, this would be a huge breakthrough for scientists; after all, it might mean new laws.  But scientists are only human.  Do you think that they will be able to comprehend the implications of a new outlook?   
Wark: Well, the human brain has not evolved to understand all of the laws of Nature.  We evolved to maximize our fitness as hunter gatherers. Just because a physical law takes place, it doesn’t mean that it is obvious on a scale that we are built to comprehend.  A human might have the same chance to understand the ultimate theory that my cat has to do calculus, but I hope not.

Glass: Do you think it would change the way that society thinks about the world, similar to a Newtonian revolution?
Wark: I don’t imagine that this will impinge upon the public consciousness the way that the Newtonian clockwork universe did, or the way the new physics (quantum mechanics and relativity) did.  I think once a person has accepted the latter they have broken free from a “common sense” world view, and this would be more of the same.
After speaking with Dr. Wark, we experienced Nelly Ben Hayoun’s project, Super K Sonic Booooum, at London’s theatrical and cavernous nightclub, Shunt.  Ben Hayoun incorporated David Wark and his colleague, Dr. Yoshi Uchida, as expert guides who ferried guests (literally, in a dinghy) through her interpretation of a neutrino detector.  They described the quest for neutrino oscillations amidst the beauty and grandeur of Ben Hayoun’s project. 
Glass (to Hayoun and Uchida): What do you want people to get from Sonic Booooum?
Ben Hayoun: I am interested in how amateurs and experts meeting each other can create a new way of making science more adapted to our creative needs; a way of making science imaginative.  I include experts in my work because it makes the experience more tangible.
Uchida: Two clubbers approached me afterward to settle a dispute between them: one thought that we physicists were actually actors and that our talk on neutrinos was scripted.  That they had been milling over this for an hour shows that the project had an impact.
Glass: So, how closely did you try to mimic a neutrino detector?
Ben Hayoun: This isn’t a mock-up neutrino detector – it’s more than that.  It’s an attempt to domesticate hard core science and bring it back to a hand made scale.  It’s a mix of reality and fantasy that delivers a physical experience.
Uchida: For me, this project evokes memories.  David [Wark] and I have worked on neutrino detectors, which are located in mines, and these cavernous vaults under London Bridge are just like the real thing.  This project captures the sense of what it is like to do real physics on the cutting edge.  Hopefully, our guests will see how fantastic this is.
In one sense, we are a very clever species.  We have brought science to new realizations that might be difficult to grasp.  So, what’s next?  What do projects such as the T2K neutrino detector and the Super K Sonic Booooum interpretation of it mean to us?  Perhaps it is that, when we transcend our Newtonian-level understanding of Nature, we need to rely not only on our mathematics, but also on our imaginations, to navigate the fantastic nature of reality.
Greg Szulgit