Measuring the invisible
Particle physicist Lindley Winslow seeks the universe’s smallest particles for answers to its biggest questions.
When she entered the field of particle physics in the early 2000’s, Lindley Winslow was swept into the center of a massive experiment to measure the invisible.
Scientists were finalizing the Kamioka Liquid Scintillator Antineutrino Detector, or KamLAND, a building-sized particle detector built within a cavernous mine deep inside the Japanese Alps. The experiment was designed to detect neutrinos — subatomic particles that pass by the billions through ordinary matter.
Neutrinos are produced anywhere particles interact and decay, from the Big Bang to the death of stars in supernovae. They rarely interact with matter and are therefore pristine messengers from the environments that create them.
By 2000, scientists had observed neutrinos from various sources, including the sun, and hypothesized that the particles were morphing into different “flavors” by oscillating. KamLAND was designed to observe the oscillation, as a function of distance and energy, in neutrinos generated by Japan’s nearby nuclear reactors.
Winslow joined the KamLAND effort the summer before graduate school and spent months in Japan, helping to prepare the detector for operation and then collecting data.
“I learned to drive a manual transmission on reinforced land cruisers into the mine, past a waterfall, and down a long tunnel, where we then had to hike up a steep hill to the top of the detector,” Winslow says.
In 2002, the experiment detected neutrino oscillations for the first time.
“It was one of those moments in science where you know something that no one else in the world does,” recalls Winslow, who was part of the scientific collaboration that received the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics in 2016 for the discovery.
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