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PG&E could help discover the origin of the universe 

So why won't the company allow scientists to build a world-class experiment next to Diablo?

Science asks, PG&E says no.

What Bob Echols really wants is a hole in the ground.

And not just Echols, his co-professors at Cal Poly; scientists up at Livermore Berkeley Labs; physicists at MIT, Stanford, and around the world all want the same thing. They all want PG&E to say yes to them digging a kilometer-long “wine cellar� in the Irish Hills. A tunnel in a mountainside. The home of a $60 million science experiment that can only take place in the one Western hemisphere location where there’s a nuclear power plant next to a mountain: Diablo Canyon.

But it all starts with a hole in the ground.

And PG&E keeps saying no.

Back in 2003, physicists — the guys and women who study how matter and energy interact — had a little meeting with some head honchos at Diablo.

The scientists were asking for a strange thing. They wanted to dig a 1- to 2-kilometer long tunnel in a mountain near the plant, set up some testing equipment, and leave it alone for about seven years, monitoring the setup from nearby Cal Poly.

Every once in a while we want to stop by and do a little basic maintenance, the scientists told the PG&E chiefs.

At first, the energy giant thought the plan was a great idea.

“We were interested,� confirmed Jeff Lewis, Diablo’s spokesman. “We thought that [the project] could have scientific value. You have to remember that there are a lot of scientific-minded people who work at the plant.�

What the Berkeley-based physicists wanted to do was study how neutrinos — the smallest particles in the universe — changed from one type to another. Figuring that out could help them truly understand how the universe was created; aka the Big Bang.

The project had enormous local implications too: The scientists wanted to run the project through Cal Poly.

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY ALEX ZUNIGA FILE/PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER GARDNER
  • ILLUSTRATION BY ALEX ZUNIGA FILE/PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER GARDNER

#Professor Echols at Poly agreed that the project would put the university “on the map.� But, he said, the biggest beneficiaries would be the students. Having a multimillion-dollar physics project in their backyard would give them the training to go on to amazing things.

Another Cal Poly professor and extremely vocal neutrino project advocate, Tony Buffa, argued that local schoolchildren would also benefit from San Luis Obispo becoming one of the centers of the science world.

But despite their early optimism, PG&E is simply not interested in the project.

Their reasons are varied. First was the issue of two huge projects Diablo will soon start: dry-cask storage and replacing the steam generators. Then there is the ongoing security issue: If the national alert level went to orange, no scientists could enter the plant grounds. Last was the fact that the project would interfere with the plant’s basic mission: to, as simply as possible, produce electricity.

Neutrino project leaders had lots of counters to those reasons: They offered to wait until both construction jobs were done to proceed with their own. They showed that they could wait through any length of security crisis before visiting their project. And they asked how they could minimize their impact.

Lewis, at Diablo, was unswayed by those arguments. Despite how simple the whole thing sounds, he said, it would be a huge logistical problem: “There were just many, many things that were conspiring to make it the wrong project at the wrong place.

“I need to make it clear: This wasn’t a decision that one person at the plant made,� he continued. “This was a decision that was supported and vetted to the highest levels of the corporation, right up to the CEO.�

Unfortunately, that (and the answer to the question “Is there any possible way that this project could happen?�) could not be confirmed at a higher level: Multiple phone calls to PG&E’s corporate headquarters the weeks before this story ran were not returned.

Stuart Freedman, one of the head scientists on the Livermore Berkeley Lab team, isn’t optimistic. “We’re still pursuing, but it’s beyond the 11th hour,� he said. “There’s a real good chance that this project will not go forward at all.�

What the hell is a neutrino?

Neutrinos were born at the beginning of time.

There are more neutrinos in the universe than atoms. New ones come from stars, planets, and nuclear reactors. They are totally harmless and billions zip through our bodies every day.

And decoding them will lead to a better understanding of the Big Bang.

To help understand what a neutrino is, go back to your high school science class and remember the brightly colored balls on interconnected plastic tubes that represented atoms.

In the center was the nucleus, made up of protons and neutrons. Around that spun different numbers of electrons.

Now, in a star — or inside a nuclear reactor — all those balls break apart as nuclear reactions occur. And they don’t just break apart from each other: The neutron itself breaks into several sub-atomic particles. One of them, the tiniest and weakest, is known as a neutrino.

Physicists call that breaking-apart process atomic decay. Once those balls break apart, the neutrinos fly though the vast space that exists between all the other atoms in the world.

But the neutrino does something else as it flies along, something that physicists didn’t discover until a few years ago: it changes from one type to another.

Physicists don’t know how that happens. That’s what they want to study at Diablo. While there are billions of neutrinos flying though us at any given time, scientists don’t know where they came from. But inside the Irish Hills next to Diablo, they can shield themselves from that constant barrage and focus on the specific neutrinos emanating from the plant.

Scientists already know the neutrino from the plant starts its journey as a certain type; what they want to find out is how far the little bugger travels before it turns into another type.

That’s why the tanks are on wheels and a track; monitor the neutrinos and move one tank to see how far it takes them to shape-shift. The other tank will help physicists validate the results.

The project would get the $50 to $60 million it needs for construction and operation from grants from the Department of Energy Office of Science and the National Science Foundation.

In the end, all the research would be open to the public and scientists around the world.

What scientists hope to learn from the research is as equally fascinating as neutrinos’ ability to switch types. They want to learn why neutrinos’ oscillation between types helped form more matter than antimatter in the early seconds of the universe.

Everyone from Einstein down to the local junior high school science teacher knows that the Big Bang should have created 50 percent matter and 50 percent antimatter. But it didn’t.

Which doesn’t mean that the overall theory used to explain the Big Bang is wrong. It just means that scientists don’t get some smaller (or in this case, tiny) part of the big picture.

“It’s strange that this theory [quantum mechanics] was created. It’s more miraculous that it really describes nature,� said Freedman, a particle physicist at Livermore Berkeley Labs.

Quantum mechanics are strange for everybody, Freedman said, and to understand it, you have to realize that we can’t “see� the atomic and sub-atomic world in the usual way we think about “seeing.�

“Your perceptions limit your imagination. Things can exist that you perceive in totally different ways. And that’s a hard thing to grasp,� he said. “The atomic world is beyond our perception.�

So why should we care?

As with religion, the written word is an extremely limiting way to describe the beauty of neutrinos. And as with religion, there are specific languages that help believers and non-believers alike understand the scope, power, and majesty of that world. For neutrinos, the language is mathematics.

Freedman said that after you begin to mathematically understand the theory that explains some of the most fundamental matter/energy interactions in universe, then the strange world of neutrinos makes sense.

“Quantum mechanics has a basic theoretical description that is quite simple. After a while you realize that the world you can’t perceive with your own senses is much simpler than the world we live in,� he said.

But what about you and me, the people who don’t get the math? The people who don’t understand this world where unthinkably small bits of matter defy logic?

Why should we care?

“It’s hard to give someone a feeling for [that],� said Cal Poly’s Echols. “It’s one of the mystical and magical things about the way the universe works.�

To explain why we should care, Echols referenced an Einstein quote: “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.�

To care about this project, Echols said, you have to appreciate science. But you also have to have a desire to know. Don’t we want to explore? he asked.

“Don’t we want to learn through careful, detailed experiments how this universe works? It’s still ultimately magical, but it’s learning about this place we live in.�

 

Staff Writer Abraham Hyatt can be reached at ahyatt@newtimesslo.com. For one local physics professor’s opinion on the project, turn to page 16.

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