In Jules Verne’s nineteenth century classic Journey to the Centre of the Earth, an Edinburgh professor and colleagues follow an explorer’s trail down an extinct volcano to the Earth’s core. Ah, fantasy! Here’s reality: For more than a century after Verne wrote his novel, geophysicists have had only one tool with which to peer into our planet’s heart-seismology, or analysis of vibrations produced by earthquakes and sensed by thousands of instrument stations worldwide. But now, geophysicists have a new tool for studying the Earth’s interior, reported in the July 28 issue of the journal Nature.
That tool is a gift from unlikely collaborators-physicists who study neutrinos, subatomic particles that stars spew out, and their antiparticles, called antineutrinos, which emanate from nuclear reactors and from the Earth’s interior when uranium and thorium isotopes undergo a cascade of heat-generating radioactive decay processes. A detector in Japan called KamLAND (for Kamioka liquid scintillator antineutrino detector) has sensed the geologically produced antineutrinos, known as ’’geoneutrinos.’’ This new window on the world that geoneutrinos open could yield important geophysical information, according to the Nature paper’s 87 authors from more than a dozen institutions and four nations.
’’There are still lots of theories about what’s really inside the Earth and so it’s still very much an open issue,’’ said Giorgio Gratta, a Stanford physics professor who with Stuart Freedman, a nuclear physicist with a joint appointment at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California-Berkeley, is co-spokesman for the U.S. part of the collaboration. ’’The neutrinos are a second tool, so we’re doubling the number of tools suddenly that we have, going from using only seismic waves to the point where we’re doing essentially simple-minded chemical analysis.’’
Mark Shwartz | EurekAlert!
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