The Telescope in the Ice: Inventing a New Astronomy at the South Pole by Mark Bowen
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.
I think I’d like this! Another one for the Christmas list. Thanks, Bill!