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Work on an observatory to study neutrinos, tiny particles that can pass through matter unhindered, has been delayed by three years as its site has not been finalized.
Naba K Mondal, spokesperson for the India-based Neutrino project (INO) and particle physics researcher at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, spoke to Sumana Narayanan on the ambitious experiment
On choices of sites for observatory
The choices are not many considering the selection criteria. We were studying the suitability of Suruliyar in Theni district of Tamil Nadu (after the Union environment ministry rejected the site at Singara in the Nilgiris) but the area was declared the Meghamalai wildlife sanctuary. So, the site became untenable. Our present choice is Bodi West Hills near Pottipuram in Theni district. We are in the process of conducting detailed studies.
On criteria for selecting site
The criteria include all-round rock cover of at least 1,000 metre, stability of the rock structure and amenities like water and power. The location should have low humidity and less rainfall. Charnockite rock, found mostly in the Western Ghats of Tamil Nadu, is most suited for housing a neutrino observatory as it provides high density walls.
On conflicting needs of science and environment
There is no conflict. We are pro-conservation. In Singara, we went the extra mile to convince people that the project is viable and any disturbance can be minimised through detailed studies. In the long run, our idea is to take active part in the preservation of local ecology. The project is an opportunity and challenge. It will set benchmarks for executing projects with sensitivity to environment. In Italy and Japan, similar projects on a larger scale have been executed in mountainous regions with forests.
On whether such esoteric science projects are needed
ino is not an esoteric science project. Since most elementary particle physics experiments today are located abroad, Indian researchers are constrained to work on projects guided by persons elsewhere and have limited access to the experiments. The motivation for ino is to have a laboratory in India where such experiments will be designed, constructed and executed by our own researchers. Students from universities and research institutes will have free access to the laboratory. It will give them hands-on experience and will lead to growth in scientific and technical expertise in the country.
It is very difficult to predict the impact of such a laboratory. For example, who could have imagined the various uses of X-rays, transistors and particle detectors (think of mri and CT scans) when they were discovered or invented.
On what separates ino from other neutrino laboratories
ino will have a magnetized iron calorimeter which will be the biggest magnetic detector in the world, giving it a reach beyond existing detectors. It is designed to complement existing and proposed neutrino detectors in other countries.
The location of ino provides another advantage. Future long baseline experiments envisage using neutrino beams from European laboratories with detectors located thousands of miles away. Theoretical calculations have identified a so-called magic baseline of about 7,000 km where the sensitivity of the experiment is the highest.
The distance of ino from European laboratories like the European Organization of Nuclear Research near Geneva— cern —is reasonably close to this magic baseline. So, ino could be the preferred detector choice for these experiments.