Neutrinos carry text message through solid rock

Arthur C. Clarke is commonly attributed with the invention of the communications satellite as a means of relaying radio signals between far off points on the surface of the Earth. We have since generally used this method for all of our long-range communication, using wavelengths that span the electromagnetic spectrum.

But that could soon change in favor of using the route that is the shortest distance between two points.

Scientists and researchers in a combined effort from the University of Rochester and North Carolina State University have announced that they were able to send a simple binary-encoded message through 240 meters of solid stone. The particles that accomplished this were the same as the message itself – “Neutrino.”

You remember neutrinos. These are the pesky little buggers that last year presumably disproved Einstein’s assertion that nothing could go faster than the speed of light in a vacuum. We in the Lab had mixed feelings on the subject when we originally heard about it.

Since then, scientists at CERN, where the race between neutrinos and light was conducted, have identified flaws in their testing equipment that could have thrown off the results. They’re planning to redo the experiment in May, to see if they can repeat the results. 

Neutrinos, electrically neutral subatomic particles, are funny things. It’s almost as if they are able to pass through some matter simply because they don’t believe in it. It makes me think of when Wile E. Coyote runs off of a cliff; he keeps going before he realizes he’s no longer on solid ground.

The Rochester and NC State research opens the possibility of communicating through walls, buildings, mountains and even, in theory, the other side of the Earth without satellites.

Of course, in order to accomplish this, the team needed one of the world’s most powerful particle accelerators, located at the Fermi National Accelerator, outside of Chicago. Oh yeah, they also needed sensitive neutrino detectors, which tend to weigh several tons and are usually located well underground.

To have two-way communications between any two points, we would need one of each on either end.

Given the vastly increased complexity (and cost) of the infrastructure that would be necessary for this type of communication, don’t expect it to totally replace satellites any time soon. But this experiment is definitely a first step toward this end.

About the Author

Greg Crowe is a former GCN staff writer who covered mobile technology.


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