The Telescope in the Ice: Engineers, physicists, and bureaucrats, oh my

The Telescope in the Ice: Inventing a New Astronomy at the South Pole  by Mark Bowen  (Author)The Telescope in the Ice: Inventing a New Astronomy at the South Pole by Mark Bowen

The Telescope in the Ice: Inventing a New Astronomy at the South Pole  by Mark Bowen  (Author)The Telescope in the Ice (2017) by Mark Bowen doesn’t quite delve as much into the science as I was hoping, but it is still a solidly informative and highly engaging work that tells the story of how the Icecube Neutrino Observatory (set at the South Pole) was conceived and built and how it was immediately successful. The strong personalities (often outlandish ones) make for interesting reading, but it’s the incredibly difficult conditions and engineering problems that create a compelling story.

Unfortunately, my usually trustworthy Kindle lost all my notes, so I’m working solely from memory here and won’t be quoting any passages. The Telescope in the Ice opens with an introduction into basic particle physics with an appropriate focus on the neutrino. That’s a focus Bowen keeps to throughout, though he of course needs to delve at least briefly (and sometimes more than that) into other areas in the field: the standard model, the difference between the neutrino and the neutralino, solar physics, wave-particle duality, etc. Bowen moves concisely and clearly through the early days of particle/quantum physics, spending a good amount of time on Pauli in particular (for good reason). He eventually hits the theories regarding muon decay, neutrino “flavors,” and oscillation. All explained quite lucidly with a few simple-but-helpful illustrations. Once the existence of all this is theorized, he dips into the problems with trying to detect the particle. This first section, roughly 15% of the book, is probably the longest bit of sustained science, so if one gets through here (and Bowen makes that quite easy), it should be smooth sailing the rest of the way.

From there it’s onward and Southward to the various early attempts at constructing a neutrino “telescope,” including AMANDA, the direct precursor to IceCube, one in Russia, and a long-running but eventually futile attempt to build one underwater (as any film director could have told them, the ocean is a horrible place to do just about anything requiring a budget and smooth operation).

While Bowen had given us nice sketches of several of the scientists involved in early discoveries, such as Pauli and Fermi, it’s with AMANDA and its contemporaries that he really hones in on the often outsized personalities involved, some for good and some less so (for instance, George Smoot, certainly one of the names most likely to be recognized by lay readers, does not come off so great here). There’s still some science here, but along with focusing more on the personalities involved, we also get some wonderfully vivid details of what it’s like to live and work at the South Pole (though some details remain hidden in a long-standing tradition of what happens on the ice stays on the ice).

And while the science is obviously difficult, it’s the engineering that often takes center stage in The Telescope in the Ice. How does one drill a hole into the ice 1000 meters (and then even deeper when a 1000 turns out to not be deep enough)? How does one build a hose that is able to heat its way down the hole but not get frozen in it as it continues to descend or on its way up? How does one keep the workers from freezing? How does one save the data and then get it to the people who need it? How does one do all of this in the very short transportation window available to ferry equipment and people to the site? And with regard to “human engineering,” how does one navigate all the egos involved, not to mention various institutions, so that they work together rather than at odds with one another?

These are not easy problems, which is why they didn’t always succeed the first (or second) time around and why it took decades of work before first AMANDA and then IceCube were built. Once there were completed, their usefulness became evident almost immediately. The scientific discoveries (pinpointing a nova for instance) are covered almost as an epilogue, though as with the earlier science, Bowen is consistently lucid in explaining both the underlying science and the importance of the discoveries, such as what they might mean for the theory of supersymmetry or the search for dark matter. He is particularly good about noting how the absence of a result can be just as useful as a result, and does a nice job of explaining the benefits of being able to “limit” theories. He ends with some discussion of the next iteration of IceCube, termed IceCube-GEN2, a brief review of the recent LIGO discovery of gravitational waves, and an excited look into the future of “multi-messenger” astrophysics.

I wouldn’t have minded a bit more science, but Bowen’s focus and concision are hardly faults. Informative even if more human-centered than most popular science books, The Telescope in the Ice is an inspiring and enjoyable account of our continued attempt to understand the universe around us.

Published November 14, 2017. The Telescope in the Ice is about the building of IceCube, which Scientific American has called the “weirdest” of the seven wonders of modern astronomy. It’s the inside story of the people who built the instrument, the mistakes they made, the blind alleys they went down, the solutions they found, their conflicts, and their teamwork. It’s a success story. Located at the U. S. Amundsen-Scott Research Station at the geographic South Pole, IceCube is unlike most telescopes in that it is not designed to detect light. It employs a cubic kilometer of diamond-clear ice, more than a mile beneath the surface, to detect an elementary particle known as the neutrino. In 2010, it detected the first extraterrestrial high-energy neutrinos and thus gave birth to a new field of astronomy. Aside from being a telescope, IceCube is the largest particle physics detector ever built. Its scientific goals span not only astrophysics and cosmology but also pure particle physics. And since the neutrino is one of the strangest and least understood of the known elementary particles, this is fertile ground. Neutrino physics is perhaps the most active field in particle physics today, and IceCube is at this forefront. This book is mainly about people and the thrill of the chase: the struggle to understand the neutrino ever since it was “invented” by the extraordinary Wolfgang Pauli in 1930, the early researchers who helped understand it, the strange things it taught them about the nature of space and time, and the pioneers and inventors of neutrino astronomy.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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One comment

  1. I think I’d like this! Another one for the Christmas list. Thanks, Bill!

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