Setback to the Neutrino Observatory shows the need to garner public support for scientific research.
What is the issue?
India’s wait to join the elite club of countries undertaking neutrino research suffered a procedural delay this year when the National Green Tribunal (NGT) suspended the environmental clearance (EC) granted to the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO), and ordered it to file a fresh application for clearance.
Proposed INO project
- The proposed INO project primarily aims to study atmospheric neutrinos in a 1,300-m deep cavern in the Bodi West Hills in Theni district, Tamil Nadu.
- If completed, the INO would house the largest magnet in the world, four times more massive than the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN’s Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) detector’s magnet.
- Neutrinos are tiny particles, almost massless, that travel at near light speeds.
- Born from violent astrophysical events such as exploding stars and gamma ray bursts, they are abundant in the universe, and can move as easily through matter as we move through air.
- They are notoriously difficult to track down. If you hold your hand towards the sunlight for one second, about a billion neutrinos from the sun will pass through it; this is because they are the by-products of nuclear fusion in the sun.
- These little wisps hold the blueprint of nature, which the INO project aims to use to understand some of the unsolved mysteries of the universe.
Critic of INO project
The INO project also has its critics:
- Many argue, among other things, that the explosives used in construction are a threat to the highly sensitive ecology of the Western Ghats, and that the relevant radiation safety studies for carrying out the long baseline neutrino experiment in the second phase of INO have not been done.
- The proposed excavation is planned to be carried out by a controlled blast, limiting the impact of vibrations with the help of computer simulations.
- Additionally, building the INO involves constructing an underground lab accessed by a 2 km-long horizontal access tunnel, resembling a road tunnel. Such tunnels have been built extensively in India and the relevant studies show that the environmental impact (mainly dust and noise in the initial phase) have been managed.
- In the second phase, the INO project initially had planned to be set up as a far detector for the Neutrino Factory, which is a proposed particle accelerator. This may not be necessary because of the discoveries already being made in the field.
- Even if you build it, the radiation from the neutrino beam alone on an average would be one in 100 millionth of the natural radiation, which is negligible.
While public apprehensions in such projects are understandable, they also demonstrate that communication between the scientific community and the public needs to be more basic and democratic. For a country of young minds, we should generate sufficient public support for such high technology and science projects.