Insights into Editorial: The mistrust of Science
India’s plans for a world-class neutrino facility have hit a serious roadblock. Regulators this week directed the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) to seek new environmental permits, pushing the long-delayed facility’s completion further into the future—and further jeopardizing its hopes of making an important discovery.
About the project:
The $220 million INO would be installed deep under a mountain in Tamil Nadu. It aims to solve the neutrino mass hierarchy: to determine, that is, which of the three types of neutrinos is heaviest and which is lightest. That arcane knowledge would allow physicists to probe long-standing mysteries such as how neutrinos acquire mass and why the universe has so much more matter than antimatter.
What are neutrinos?
Neutrinos, first proposed by Swiss scientist Wolfgang Pauli in 1930, are the second most widely occurring particle in the universe, only second to photons, the particle which makes up light.
In fact, neutrinos are so abundant among us that every second, there are more than 100 trillion of them passing right through each of us — we never even notice them.
Neutrinos occur in three different types, or flavours. These are separated in terms of different masses. From experiments so far, we know that neutrinos have a tiny mass, but the ordering of the neutrino mass states is not known and is one of the key questions that remain unanswered till today. This is a major challenge INO will set to resolve, thus completing our picture of the neutrino.
Neutrinos are very important for our scientific progress and technological growth for three reasons:
- First, they are abundant.
- Second, they have very feeble mass and no charge and hence can travel through planets, stars, rocks and human bodies without any interaction. In fact, a beam of trillions of neutrinos can travel thousands of kilometres through a rock before an interaction with a single atom of the rock and the neutrino occurs.
- Third, they hide within them a vast pool of knowledge and could open up new vistas in the fields of astronomy and astrophysics, communication and even in medical imaging, through the detector spin-offs
Why study neutrinos?
First, neutrinos may have a role to play in nuclear non-proliferation through the remote monitoring of nuclear reactors. The plutonium-239 which is made via nuclear transmutation in the reactor from uranium-238 can potentially be used in nuclear devices by terrorist groups. Using appropriate neutrino detectors, the plutonium content can be monitored remotely and used to detect any pilferage. Neutrino research can be our answer to ensure that no terror group ever acquires nuclear weapons.
Second, understanding neutrinos can help us detect mineral and oil deposits deep in the earth. Neutrinos tend to change their “flavour” depending on how far they have travelled and how much matter they have passed through in the way. Far more importantly, this same property might help us detect early geological defects deep within the earth, and thereby might be the answer to an early warning system against earthquakes.
Third, as we now know, neutrinos can pass right through the earth. They may open up a faster way to send data than the current ‘around the earth’ model, using towers, cables or satellites. Such a communication system using neutrinos will be free of transmission losses as neutrinos rarely react with the atoms in their path. This can open up new vistas for telecom and Internet services. Some scientists further believe that if there is any extraterrestrial form of life, neutrinos will also be the fastest and most trusted way to communicate with them.
Fourth, neutrinos are the information bearers of the universe — which are almost never lost in their path. India’s effort in studying neutrinos at INO may help us unravel the deepest mystery of the universe — why there is more matter than antimatter in the universe.
Besides, neutrino research can help us understand dark matter. Dark matter and dark energy make up 95% of the universe, far more predominant than ordinary matter in the universe — but we hardly understand it. Neutrinos are the only way to detect this great mystery which may completely alter our understanding of the universe and physics. Searches for this dark matter can only be carried out in INO.
Developments so far:
Indian physicists originally hoped to have the INO up and running by 2012. That target evaporated in 2009, when India’s environment ministry denied permission to construct the INO on the edge of prime elephant habitat in Tamil Nadu state. The project team then found an alternative site in the Bodi West Hills, also in Tamil Nadu. The new government approved the INO in January 2015, and a new completion date was set for 2020.
- Work stalled again in March 2015, when a court ordered the INO project team to seek a pollution control permit. Critics claim that blasting rock to carve the observatory’s access tunnel and experimental hall would disrupt local ecology, including in nearby Mathikettan Shola National Park.
- Now, the tribunal directed the INO to seek a new permit from the central government as well as get clearance from the National Board for Wildlife, which oversees Mathikettan Shola National Park, and put the project through another environmental impact assessment.
Implications of this move:
The tribunal’s order will cause a serious delay in starting the project. That means the INO will fall further behind other facilities gunning for the neutrino mass hierarchy, including China’s Jiangmen Underground Neutrino Observatory, expected to open in 2019.
Why is it being opposed?
The proposed massive neutrino detector will be built in a cavern set in massive charnockite rock. The cavern will be excavated by drilling a tunnel of 1.9 to 2 km in length, so that there is vertical overburden of about 1300 m. For a good neutrino detection facility, a vertical cover of at least 1000 m is required, so that the observed neutrino events are not contaminated by unwanted particles that will be absorbed by the overburden.
However, there have been several doubts raised by protestors such as possible radiation from the project and the apprehension that the mountain where the tunnel would be drilled would become unstable. There are also fears that there would be use of hazardous chemicals and gases.
What scientists say on environmental concerns?
The scientists promoting the project have said that such apprehensions of protestors are unjustified. They say that there will be no radiation emitting from the lab, as the lab is that deep in the earth to keep out radiation.
It is further said that the lab will not affect the structural stability of the mountain. While making the tunnel, the technological advancement will ensure that the environment is left untouched; at the most, the rock blasting will cause flutters, but that won’t last long and normal conditions will be restored in quick time.
To ensure safety of the experiment and the people, the gases will be recycled many times and only then let off in controlled amount. The equipment and the gases used for the experiment will be hermetically sealed, so that there would be no chance of any pollution/contamination from there.
What scientists say on the need for the project?
According to the scientists, this India based neutrino observatory is a particle physics research project, proposed to be implemented to primarily study atmospheric neutrinos. The project is anticipated to provide a precise measurement of neutrino mixing parameters.
- The field of neutrino physics has attracted world wide attention and there is a need to understand many questions put forth by the phenomena of neutrino oscillations. The Super Kamiokande neutrino observatory in Japan, Sudbury Neutrino Observatory in Canada, Gran Sasso Lab in Italy, IceCube Neutrino Observatory in the South Pole are some of the existing neutrino laboratories in the world.
- As far as India is concerned, this is a Mega Science Project, that would enable India to join the group of elite countries that are conducting research on such advanced field, so that India will not be left behind in the global scientific pursuits.
- Obviously, the scientists are thrilled about this project, since it would place India in the league of advanced nations who carry out such research project, with China particularly considering such research project as thrust areas for long term scientific pursuits.
Need to engage local people:
Critics seem to be of view that such advanced science and technology oriented Rs.1500 crore project is only of academic research at this stage, with the end results of the investment and efforts not being clearly known or defined or explained. Critics wonder whether India should initiate a research activity for the sake of research, while there is lack of clarity on the outcome.
- Common men in the country and the tax payers expect to be told in precise and quantitative terms about the long term targets, objectives and envisaged benefits of this programme. They seem to think that they only got vague explanations, which only adds to confusion about the need for such project, even amongst those who are favourably inclined towards research pursuits.
- Scientists simply say that the project will benefit the country by enhancing India’s scientific manpower. They claim that the use of state of the art technologies in the design and development of the project would build a technologically stronger nation. Beyond that, any tangible explanation involving facts to explain the commercial worthiness of the investments have not been advanced to satisfy the anxious queries from the common men of India.
- While the activists and local people seem to be concerned more about the safety issues at this stage, the fact is that the commercial and technical justification for the project in simple style that can be communicated to the common men has been conspicuous by absence. This makes it difficult to difficult to study the cost benefit analysis of the project.
This appears to be a repeated problem in India that the government and the scientific community do not adequately communicate with the common men and local people in transparent style with regard to the objectives of their activities and the risk factors, if any, that are involved. Lack of transparency and communication with the country men and local people is the real cause for delay and controversies in the case of several projects. Neutrino project is one more example of such approach of the scientific community and the government with regard to the conceived projects for implementation.
It is true that, sometimes, the objective of scientific pursuits in a particular direction are more based on expectations and hopes and discovery of unknown factors that may be of great significance. Even in such case, this should be explained to the people in straight forward manner. If this investment in neutrino project is a calculated risk from the point of view of commercial terms, let it be told to people. Many concerned people may support the project even if there would be a calculated risk considering the overall possible benefits. Besides, the INO project is good old science; rather than shying away from it, we must embrace it and assert our stake in it.