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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Telescope in the Ice

Inventing a New Astronomy at the South Pole

Mark Bowen

St. Martin's Press

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Introduction: Making Mistakes


The universe can’t exist the way it is without the neutrinos, but they seem to be in their own separate universe, and we’re trying to actually make contact with that otherworldly universe of neutrinos. And as a physicist, even though I understand it mathematically and I understand it intellectually, it still hits me in the gut that there is something here around surrounding me, almost like some kind of spirit or god that I can’t touch, but I can measure it. I can make a measurement. It’s like measuring the spirit world or something like that.

—PETER GORHAM

In November 2013, the international collaboration that operates the IceCube Neutrino Observatory announced that they had detected high-energy neutrinos coming from outer space. This heralded the birth of a new form of astronomy, based not on the usual cosmic messenger, light, but on perhaps the strangest of the known elementary particles, the neutrino. It was also the culmination of a quest that had first fired the imagination of a small group of visionaries more than fifty years earlier and seen many heroic attempts and failures along the way.

Part of the reason this journey has taken so long is that it takes an unusual telescope to see an unusual particle. IceCube is unlike any other telescope you’ve ever seen or heard of, and in fact no one ever will see it, because it’s buried more than a mile deep in the ice at the geographic South Pole. The collaborators couldn’t even see it while they were building it. Francis Halzen, the Belgian theorist at the University of Wisconsin who dreamed up the idea, says it was like building a telescope in a darkroom.

This instrument doesn’t employ lenses and mirrors in the fashion of the usual telescope. Presently, and it may grow, it consists of eighty-six kilometer-long “strings” of unadorned light detectors, housed in spherical glass pressure vessels about the size of basketballs. These “strings of pearls” have been lowered into eighty-six two-and-a-half-kilometer-deep holes that were drilled in the ice by a gargantuan hot water drill and allowed to freeze in place. Thus, the topmost pearls are one and a half kilometers—or about a mile—down. The holes have been drilled in a hexagonal grid pattern that covers a square kilometer on the surface of the ice. Hence, the more than five thousand detectors in this unique device monitor about one cubic kilometer, or a billion tons, of what the scientists were thrilled to discover to be very clear, deep Antarctic ice. It is the clearest natural substance known, clearer even than diamond.

Scientific American once called this telescope the “weirdest” of the seven wonders of modern astronomy. And perhaps the weirdest thing about it is that it doesn’t look up at the southern sky from its location on the bottom of the world; it looks down into the ice. IceCube is designed to look through the planet at the northern sky. Since the neutrino is the only known particle that can pass all the way through a planet without being absorbed or deflected off course, any particle that reaches this particular cube of ice from the northern direction must be a neutrino. The instrument uses the Earth as a shield to block other types of particle, which might create a false signal.

The reason the neutrino can pass so easily through a planet is that it doesn’t like to show its face. It is sometimes known as the ghost particle. It may be the most plentiful particle in the universe—several hundred billion will pass through your eyeballs by the time you finish reading this sentence—but it is rarely seen, and it won’t hurt your eyes, because it barely interacts with any kind of matter. This makes it very hard to detect. As Nobel laureate and amateur stand-up comedian Leon Lederman once said, “A particle that reacted with nothing whatever could never be detected. It would be a fiction. The neutrino is barely a fact.” Your average neutrino will pass unscathed—and therefore undetected—through a slab of lead one light year, or six trillion miles, thick. Thus it has no problem passing through the Earth, which is considerably less dense than lead and less than paper-thin in comparison to a light year, and most will pass right on through IceCube as well. Every once in a while, however, one will react with the ice in or around the detector or the bedrock below it and produce a charged particle, which will speed along in the same direction as its parent neutrino, dragging a cone of pale blue light along with it. IceCube’s light sensors pick up this light, and by watching the way it passes through the three-dimensional grid of detectors, the scientists can determine the direction of the charged particle and the direction of its parent neutrino, in turn. This makes IceCube a telescope.

* * *

As it happens, the reticence that makes the little particle so hard to detect has the beneficial side effect of making it a wonderful complement to light when it comes to astronomy. Since the neutrino can pass through extremely dense media that are opaque to all wavelengths of light, it can carry information from regions of space that are inaccessible to the usual telescope, such as the interiors of stars—including the exploding ones known as supernovae—or regions of our galaxy that are obscured by interstellar dust—the black hole at our galaxy’s core, for example.

One motivation for inventing this new astronomy is to see into the inner workings of the most violent events in the universe: supernovae, active galactic nuclei, supernova remnants, gamma ray bursters, colliding galaxies, and other strange beasts, some not yet imagined. The scientific possibilities also extend to cosmology and the detection of the mysterious and so far unseen cold dark matter, which constitutes most of the mass of the universe. They reach into pure particle physics as well, since all the violent creatures just named are basically huge particle accelerators, operating by the same basic principles as the manmade variety here on Earth—including the multi-billion-dollar Large Hadron Collider, which produced evidence for the Higgs boson in 2012—but on a vastly larger scale.

The neutrino itself has become a focus of particle physics in recent years, since in 1998 it produced the first and still only chink in the armor of the standard model of particle physics. This is the theoretical framework that describes the building blocks of matter, the elementary particles, and how they interact with each other through three of the four fundamental forces: the weak nuclear force, the strong nuclear force, and the electromagnetic force. The standard model, which was constructed in the 1970s, is turning out to be so successful that it’s beginning to feel like a straightjacket. With the discovery of the Higgs, which was the last standard-model particle remaining to be detected, it’s looking as though there’s not much left to discover, and physicists don’t like things to be tied so neatly with a bow. They’re always looking for something new, and the surprising behavior of the neutrino suggests unknown phenomena yet to be explored. For the heart of physics, and indeed all science, is pure exploration.

This brings us to the main reason for building this unusual instrument. The newborn field of neutrino astronomy has opened a new window on the universe, and rarely in the history of astronomy has such a new window not led to a discovery that was unimaginable beforehand. Galileo is the classic example.

The first optical telescopes were developed in Flanders for merchants getting a jump on the market by taking advance inventories of the goods on ships as they approached across the English Channel. Galileo used his superior understanding of optics and math to craft a better one, which he presented to the Venetian Doge as a tool of war. A few months later, he trained another at the Moon on a clear night when Jupiter, the second brightest object in the sky, happened to be floating just above it and to the right. Thus he discovered the four “Medicean stars,” now known as moons, heretically orbiting the planet, and got himself in trouble.

In 1965, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, two physicists at Bell Telephone Laboratories, made an unexpected discovery while they were designing ground-based radio antennae for communications satellites. In order to test a horn-shaped antenna they had designed to be ultra-quiet, they aimed it at what they thought was empty space and were surprised to find that it always picked up a small amount of “noise” no matter how painstaking their design. The noise turned out to be a real signal: the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, the afterglow of the Big Bang, the explosion out of nothingness that brought this universe into being about fourteen billion years ago. This discovery transformed the Big Bang and cosmology in general from objects of ridicule into subjects for precise study. It also illustrates another aspect of discovery: the scientist’s mind needs to be prepared in order to interpret what he or she measures or “sees”—or even to be able to see it. Theories of the Big Bang and its microwave afterglow had been gestating for decades by the time Penzias and Wilson made their measurement. They won the Nobel Prize not simply for finding a signal but for interpreting it with the knowledge or “eyes” of their day. This leapfrogging between theory and experiment is what propels science forward. Sometimes theory is out in front, sometimes the accumulated weight of unexplained experimental evidence prompts new theories or even paradigm shifts. And these developments can take decades, as we shall see in this book.

After the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed in 1963, the U.S. Department of Defense began sending satellites into orbit in order to verify that the Soviets weren’t violating the treaty by testing bombs in space, underwater, or on the Moon. The idea was to sense the gamma rays (invisible light at shorter wavelengths than X-rays) given off by the blasts. The satellites never detected any of those, but they did detect numerous “treaty violations” in deep space: brief and astoundingly intense bursts of gamma rays in the distant cosmos. The scientific community became aware of this discovery a few years later when the data was declassified, and the enigmatic sources of the bursts were given the noncommittal name “gamma ray bursters.” Over the course of one to twenty seconds or so, GRBs give off about as much light as that given off by all the other stars and galaxies in the known universe. Theory holds that they should give off neutrinos, too, so they are of great interest to IceCube.

The astrophysicist Kenneth Lang observes that “our celestial science seems to be primarily instrument-driven, guided by unanticipated discoveries with unique telescopes and novel detection equipment.… [W]e can be certain that the observed universe is just a modest fraction of what remains to be discovered.”

* * *

The dream of making a big discovery is one of the things that drives the working scientist; however, media coverage and prestigious awards like the Nobel give the layperson a distorted sense of its importance, I think. The clichéd emphasis on supposedly earthshattering results is especially pernicious in physics, where it would seem that a discovery that “changes our view of the universe” takes place every few months. Some such over-the-top phrase is almost inevitably employed in any newspaper or magazine article describing even the most insignificant result, and the physicists who have now taken to trumpeting their findings in press conferences before publishing them in the peer-reviewed literature share a good part of the blame. In reality, discoveries on the order of the theory of relativity or Darwinian evolution are exceedingly rare.

But there is some truth in the noise of science journalism, nevertheless. The fact is that scientists tend to enjoy their work more than most, for the main reason that what really gets them out of bed in the morning is the thrill of the chase. They come to some minor realization, solve some esoteric technical problem, or shine a light into some new dark corner of the territory they’ve been exploring almost every day. More than half the time they’re wrong, but at least they’re on track. And finding out they were wrong—going from confusion to clarity—can be just as thrilling as finding they were right.

Francis Halzen tells me that the late John Bahcall, a respected neutrino theorist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, used to say that “physicists have two deep dark secrets that they hide from non-scientists under lock and key. The first is that physics does not progress logically; it’s a series of mishaps.… And the second is that they’re having so much fun that they’d do it even if they weren’t getting paid.”

My goal is to show you the truth of Bahcall’s secrets by taking you inside an experiment that has provided more than enough of the kind of riches that physicists live for. I’ve had a front-row seat for about twenty years.

* * *

I was introduced to IceCube in 1997 by Bruce Koci, the master driller. It happened in a roundabout way.

One sunny day in June of that year, I received a call at my home near Boston from an editor at Natural History magazine. She asked if I might be free to write an article about a paleoclimatologist named Lonnie Thompson, who retrieves ice cores from high mountain glaciers in order to study past climates and climate change.

A week later I flew to La Paz, Bolivia, and a week after that I reached base camp below the highest mountain in the country, Nevado Sajama, a dormant 21,500-foot volcano capped by a round snow dome—the perfect shape, I would soon learn, for ice core drilling. Lonnie and his team had been working on the summit for about two weeks at that point, and within the next few days they were planning to use a hot-air balloon to fly the first ice core segments down to a waiting freezer truck on the plain at the base of the mountain. Figuring it was my journalistic responsibility to get to the top in time to see this, I climbed a bit too quickly given the altitude and panted into the drilling camp in golden westerly light on the afternoon before the scheduled liftoff, carrying only a daypack and no sleeping bag.

It was immediately apparent that I had stumbled upon an extraordinary world—above and beyond the unusual work, the brutal cold, and the breathtaking views all around under a spanking azure sky. The drilling team was blasé about the surroundings. They were there to work, not moon about the beauty of the place, and their dedication was palpable. They knew each other well. They had drilled together for decades in similar locations around the world and had lived on glaciers like this for years all told. Their conversation didn’t stray beyond the tasks at hand. There was a meditative silence on that mountaintop as they used their elegant solar-powered drill to mine ice core segments one meter at a time, log them into a lab notebook, pack them in insulated boxes, and bury them in a snow pit to await the descent to lower altitudes and the ultimate destination of Lonnie’s walk-in freezer at Ohio State University, half a world away.

Bruce didn’t stand out at first. For one thing, that wasn’t his way. But I will never forget my first interaction with him, which I described in my 2005 book, Thin Ice:

Soon the sun sank too low to provide power. The pyramidal shadow of the mountain stretched across the desert to meet the horizon. The sky turned purple then gray. We shoe-horned ourselves into the snow cave, a rectangular hole fifteen feet long and five feet wide—too low for standing—which served as dining room, living room, and lounge. We sat along opposite walls on benches cut in the snow, knee to knee, thigh to thigh, backs and seats against cold white surfaces, sipping tea and soup in near silence.

After dinner I decided to point out that I had no gear. Bruce Koci [pronounced “ko'-see”] then forced himself slowly to his feet and climbed into the twilight. A few minutes later he called from above, holding four of the six-inch foam pads they use to insulate the ice and two of the fluffiest down sleeping bags I have ever seen—much warmer than my own back at High Camp. He helped me lay out the pads in a tent and pile the bags on top.

“There,” he said. “Wrap yourself in these like a fox in his tail.”

This was the first of many acts of generosity, toward others and myself, that I saw Bruce perform in the years that I knew him.

At that point he was approaching the end of his twenty-year tenure as Lonnie’s lead driller. The two had co-invented the solar-powered drilling technology in the early 1980s and had retrieved the world’s first high-altitude ice cores together on Peru’s Quelccaya Ice Cap, not far to the north of Sajama, in 1983. Bruce was gentle, quiet, and humble, clearly one-of-a-kind, and had a deep spiritual connection to the natural world. Once the expedition was over and my article was complete, I felt a desire to keep in touch, both with him and with Lonnie.

It wasn’t easy at first, as they spent only two weeks at home—Bruce in Alaska, Lonnie in Ohio—between the expedition to Bolivia and another three-month effort in Tibet. Finally, in mid-November, Bruce sent me an e-mail:

Mark;

Just got back from Tibet, actually about 3 weeks ago and finally got brave enough to attack the many hundreds of messages. Sajama was quite successful as was Tibet with several cores to bedrock.… I am off to the South Pole soon to drill 2400 meter deep holes looking for neutrinos. This project is really interesting and at the cutting edge of high energy astrophysics so we get to make a lot of mistakes.…

Peace;

BK

I asked him about the physics project. It was named AMANDA, he told me, the Antarctic Muon And Neutrino Detector Array. “The contrast of the two projects is pretty interesting in that with Lonnie we go in with light equipment and bring out heavy ice core. With AMANDA we have a huge drill (200,000 lb.) and the data doesn’t weigh anything.”

He put me in touch with Francis Halzen and his colleague Bob Morse at the University of Wisconsin, the lead institution in the AMANDA collaboration. They were an affable and complementary pair: Francis the theorist and Bob the experimentalist. Bob was lead “man on the ground” in Antarctica and principal investigator, or PI, on the grant from the National Science Foundation that provided most of the funding for the project. Oddly, Francis, who had dreamed the whole thing up, was designated co-PI, meaning he didn’t hold the level of responsibility that Bob did—on paper at least. But it would quickly become apparent that there is almost always more to Francis than meets the eye. Regardless of the hierarchy, he was in fact intellectual leader and spiritus rector of the project, and his was the head on the chopping block if the project happened to fail.

Be that as it may, both were relaxed, friendly, and quite open. They invited me to attend a collaboration meeting that would be held in conjunction with an open workshop at the University of California, Irvine, in the spring of 1998.

The collaboration was relatively small at that point in time. Wisconsin, Cal Berkeley, and Irvine had been the founding institutions in 1990; a Swedish contingent from Stockholm and Uppsala Universities had joined in 1992; and a group from a small high-energy physics institute in the former East Germany had joined two years after that. They held private collaboration meetings about three times a year, combining them with workshops every once in a while.

The purpose of this workshop was to gather together theorists with ideas about astrophysical sources of neutrinos, other neutrino astronomers, scientists and engineers with relevant technologies to bring to the table, experts in South Pole logistics, and representatives of the funding agencies to “initiate the conceptual design of IceCube—a kilometer-scale neutrino facility in Antarctica.” The idea was to “extend the AMANDA technique to kilometer-scale dimensions.” This, as it happened, was the first meeting ever held specifically about IceCube.

The reason they needed to extend AMANDA was that the sensitivity and angular resolving power of a neutrino telescope is directly related to its size. Owing to the neutrino’s aloofness, it is necessary to monitor as large a volume of ice as possible, because the larger the volume the more likely it is that a neutrino will deign to interact inside it, die, and give birth to a visible child. Theory held that the minimum size needed for so-called discovery potential, the ability to observe the exotic cosmic accelerators that are expected to emit neutrinos, was about one cubic kilometer. AMANDA was the proof of concept for IceCube, the test as to whether it would be at all possible to see neutrinos in deep Antarctic ice. It was also the test bed for the technology that would be used in the larger instrument and the opportunity to explore the two-mile-thick East Antarctic Ice Sheet—no small task. There was dizzying technology involved, especially in Bruce Koci’s drill.

At the same time, AMANDA was not exactly small. The collaboration had been working on it for about eight years. The array comprised a cylinder 120 meters in diameter, 500 meters high (a bit taller than the Eiffel Tower), and more than a mile deep, monitoring about six million tons of ice.

* * *

I soon discovered that not everyone in the AMANDA collaboration was as accommodating as Bob and Francis. The night before the spring meeting, its organizer, Steven Barwick, a professor at Irvine, held a party at his home to welcome us to town. As I thanked him on my way out, Steve informed me that a few members of the collaboration were uncomfortable with my attending the meeting and that I would not be allowed in. I was welcome to attend the open workshop, but I’d have to cool my heels for a few days until it started. I rationalized this disappointment with the thought that the most interesting conversations usually take place on the periphery of such gatherings anyway, especially after a couple of sips of alcohol.

Indeed, after the party, in the bar of our hotel, I joined Francis Halzen for a nightcap. He was a compact, youthful-looking man, who came across, quite simply, as one of the happiest people I had ever met.

Francis is not given to long pronouncements. He tends to speak in aphorisms, accompanied by a twinkle of the eye and the look of someone who’s about to let you in on a joke. One of his oldest colleagues and friends, Tom Gaisser from the University of Delaware, notes the “oracular, sibyl-like” quality of the comments Francis makes during group phone calls: they can be taken in several ways, and they usually break the logjam. He is also usually two or three steps ahead of most everyone else in the room. Francis has a deep voice, speaks English with a rich Flemish accent, and will often precede a point he is about to make by saying, “I don’t have to tell you this, because from what I just said it’s obvious,” when it isn’t obvious to me at all. I liked him right away.

Many physicists seem to be perpetually high on mental activity, the bouncing around of neurons and the linking of synapses in the brain. This exhilarating and pleasurable sensation is the general buzz at these meetings, and Francis seems to thrive on it more than most. In those days, his science talk tended to be the high point of a collaboration meeting. It was generally about some physics insight he’d recently experienced, and as he spoke he was subject to surges of realization and excitement in which the ideas splashed across his mind so fast that his mouth couldn’t keep up. He’d sputter like a motor burning too much oxygen with its fuel, and his words would come out in bursts.

As we sipped our drinks that evening, he came out with one of his standard, three-steps-ahead-of-the-game remarks. He assured me that even though AMANDA had not yet detected a single bona fide neutrino, the best part of the story was already over, and that had been the discovery that the instrument would actually work. This certainty had arisen in his mind, at least, two years earlier, when the collaboration had discovered that the deep ice under the pole is remarkably clear. To a theorist like himself, the rest was detail; at that point it was obvious the instrument would work. It had taken two years to bring the rest of the physics community along—not to mention certain recalcitrant members of the collaboration—but the workshop that would be held in a few days was a sign that the wider community, including the all-important funding agencies, was preparing to endorse the construction of IceCube.

It was an historic moment, he told me. The dream of building a neutrino telescope had been around for forty years, since the late 1950s. There had been many attempts in the intervening decades, and two or three other feasibility studies still limped along, but this was the first to show enough promise to merit a move toward the real thing.

Francis mentioned DUMAND once or twice, and I would hear this name many times in the course of the week. The Deep Underwater Muon And Neutrino Detector was the first pioneering—and by this time, unfortunately, notorious—attempt at realizing the dream. Its DNA is still found everywhere in neutrino astronomy. Several DUMAND veterans worked on AMANDA, and at least one still works on IceCube. This swashbuckling project, first funded in 1980, was supposed to have been located three miles deep on the floor of the Pacific Ocean, nineteen miles off the coast of the big island of Hawaii. It used water as the detection medium, rather than ice. After a long series of mishaps, DUMAND had been canceled just two years earlier, in 1996. There is a half-decent chance that it detected one up-going neutrino in the sixteen years of its existence. The other competing efforts were also water-based.

I was surprised to hear Francis say that it had proven easier to build one of these unlikely gadgets at the frigid South Pole than in the warmest tropical waters, for the simple reason that ice allows you to walk on your experiment. The central challenge for the water-based instruments was and remains ocean engineering. As one of the DUMAND pioneers wrote twelve years into the project, by which time they had still not placed even a preliminary design on the ocean floor, “Sailors have long known what we learned painfully, that the sea is an unforgiving medium.”

By contrast, even though absurdly cold weather and six months of darkness prevented them from working more than four months a year at the pole, the AMANDA collaboration placed their first working detectors in the ice on their second try, two years into the project, and constructed their current working prototype within five years.

As our conversation ended, Francis suggested characteristically that I ignore Steve Barwick’s advice and show up anyway the next morning. I did and Steve promptly kicked me out.

I took advantage of my free time over the next few days to go running on Huntington Beach and catch up on my sleep. I hung out with the Amandroids, as they called themselves, during breaks and meals, and most profitably for after-dinner drinks. I spent as much time as I could with Bruce Koci, who didn’t look a whole lot different in squeaky-clean southern California than he had on the mountaintop in Bolivia. He showed up every morning in a pair of skin-tight blue jeans and beaten-up running shoes, wearing a bulky, un-tucked chamois shirt and carrying a venerable daypack that had seen many days at altitude. Never in the years that I knew Bruce did I see clear evidence that he had combed his hair.

For environmental reasons, he insisted on walking back and forth to the conference venue from his hotel. It rained on one or two mornings, and on those days he protected his rumpled shirt with a formerly blue Gore-Tex jacket that had been bleached nearly white by months if not years of sun, wind, and rain. One morning, he was stopped by the campus police, who suspected he was a homeless person seeking shelter in a campus building.

Bruce’s main reason for coming to these meetings was to keep himself current on the science in order to psyche himself up for the rigors of drilling. He was one of those rare engineers who realized that it didn’t matter if he built his machines up to spec if they couldn’t do what the scientists needed them to, especially since, much of the time, neither they nor he knew what the specs needed to be. He once referred to his relationship with Lonnie Thompson as “one of the longest-standing friendly relationships between science and engineering ever.”

He represented one side of an interesting contrast that I noticed particularly at the workshop that followed the collaboration meeting. On one hand were the theorists, the inspiring John Bahcall among them, presenting heady ideas about the cosmic accelerators IceCube might eventually observe. While Bahcall’s feet seemed firmly on the ground, the other theorists had a febrile, untethered quality. The models they proposed seemed like examples of imagination gone wild, as if they were throwing darts at a wall, hoping that a decade or so later, when IceCube might finally produce results, one of those darts might nail an experimental finding. The lucky winner could then claim that she’d made an accurate prediction, ignoring the fact that she might have made several others that were disproven at the same time.

On the other hand were the experimentalists, who had a gritty, persevering quality like Bruce. It took me some time to realize that the AMANDA collaborators had to have been exhausted just then, since their frantic, annual, four-month Antarctic field season had ended only about a month earlier. It had been a successful season, but there had been plenty of frustration and interpersonal strife mixed in. They were building the world’s largest particle physics detector, after all, dealing with the innumerable details involved in getting such an enormous and infernal gadget to work in one of the most inhospitable places on the planet. Unlike the theorists, they would not be bouncing to the next interesting problem in a week or two. IceCube had not even been designed yet. It wouldn’t be completed for another twelve years.

* * *

On the last morning of the collaboration meeting, as the day’s proceedings were to about begin, I joined the Amandroids for a self-serve breakfast of bagels, juice, and coffee in the hall outside the meeting rooms. Steve Barwick approached and said, “Mark, the collaboration has decided to give you a chance to make your case. We’d like you to give a presentation.”

“When?” I asked.

“Right now.”

First, I apologized for not having a set of overhead transparencies (this was before the days of PowerPoint). That brought a laugh. Then I explained that I thought I understood their needs and concerns: I would not leak preliminary results or pass negative rumors, and I believed I had a vested interest in their success. A professor from Irvine took issue with that one, referring to the book Nobel Dreams (subtitle: Power, Deceit and the Ultimate Experiment), which paints an unflattering portrait of Nobel Laureate Carlo Rubbia, a friend, or at least a colleague, of many in the room. I explained that it would be a long time before anything would appear in print (little did I know…). They asked me to leave the room for a while and then invited me back and welcomed me into the collaboration.

I’ve had open access ever since—for several years, in fact, I had total access: I even attended the closed meetings of the principal investigators. And at the end of 1999 I worked with Bruce Koci, drilling ice at the South Pole.

* * *

Those who were there generally agree that AMANDA was more fun than IceCube. It takes a looser mindset and a more risk-taking attitude to get a project off the ground than to engineer it to perfection (although that phase of the project was inspiring as well). The exploration is more wide-ranging. In some sense your job is to make mistakes. There was more derring-do on the ice during AMANDA—no one had heard of safety protocols or standard operating procedures—and Amundsen-Scott South Pole station, like so many other places, was more of a frontier outpost in those days. It is fair to say that AMANDA is the heart of this story. Francis Halzen says that AMANDA was “how neutrino astronomy was born.”

It turned out that I had also met this close-knit tribe at a propitious time. For Francis wasn’t quite right when he told me the best part was already over. The next six months were probably the most exciting in the history of this project, even including IceCube’s groundbreaking discovery fifteen years later.


Copyright © 2017 by Mark Bowen