From the Field: Uncovering the History of the Universe in China

by Gabrielle DeMarco on January 17, 2012

I wrote recently about Professor James Napolitano’s research in particle physics. Napolitano’s work is fascinating because it does this atom-scale science on a truly massive scale. And when I say massive, I mean MASSIVE. Look at how tiny the people on that reactor are! And that is only a portion of the experiment.

Particle physics is truly Big Science. To create and study particles, huge reactors must be designed and constructed. These projects require collaboration between hundreds of scientists from around the world and tons of steel and advanced technology.

Napolitano just returned from his latest visit to help create one of these massive particle physics experiments – The Daya Bay Reactor Neutrino Experiment in China. The reactor is studying little-understood particles called neutrinos. Recently, neutrinos were a hot topic in the news when several scientists claimed that they could travel faster than the speed light, calling into question our basic understanding of space and time. Daya Bay will help us learn more about this now highly controversial finding as well as many other basics on the particles. While he was away, Napolitano was kind enough to take a break and write to The Approach on the progress of this great experiment:

I’m just completing a series of meetings on site in China at Daya Bay, and at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, as we continue towards full implementation of the Daya Bay Reactor Neutrino Experiment. We expect full data taking to be underway in short order, with our first results available by Summer 2012.

Here is a photo of Experimental Hall #3 (above), recently completed. This is the largest of the three halls, and the one farthest from the reactor complex and therefore directly sensitive to the neutrino oscillation phenomenon for which we are searching.

Three antineutrino detectors (AD) are installed in this photo. (The pool is designed to accommodate four AD’s.) Soon the pool is to be filled with water so that data taking can begin.

Rensselaer has responsibility for the water purification, filling, and recirculation system for the pools. Here is a photograph of part of the purification apparatus in the underground construction area, along with Research Engineer James Wilhelmi (RPI ’10, BS Env Eng) and physics undergraduate student Thomas Zhang. (They took photos of each other.) James also appears in the photograph on the original posting, as the person in the red shirt on top of the AD on the left side of the pool. We are all returning to Rensselaer shortly, but James is returning in two weeks; things are moving rapidly and his on-site expertise is critical to getting things up and running.