Dr. Emily Maher is part of a national, cutting-edge research project that may determine the future of secure communications, as well as communications with submarines and with astronauts traveling across the galaxies.
Maher, a physics professor at MCLA, is part of MINERvA (Main Injector Neutrino ExperRiment v-A) at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Illinois, where she studies the neutrino, a fundamental particle.
Scientists from North Carolina State University wanted to see if communication through the use of neutrinos was possible, and asked the MINERvA group to test that potential for the first time.
"Using neutrinos would be a good method of communication because they rarely interact, so they can travel very far distances. It's the same reason they would be good to use for submarine communication. We can send neutrinos and almost 100 percent will make it - even into deep space. If we try that with light or radio waves or other types of waves, those types of communication would encounter interference and they wouldn't make it," Maher said.
Communication through neutrinos also would be extremely secure. "It would be very difficult for people to intercept the information, as opposed to radio waves which others could pick up," she explained.
In the experiment, the neutrino beam acted as a sort of microphone, or transmitter, which changed depending on the word that the scientists tried to send. The MINERvA detector was the receiver.
"We took our neutrino beam and sent it to our detector," Maher explained. "We would turn the beam on to represent a '1.' Then we'd turn the beam off to represent a '0.' We communicated information using binary, or ones and zeros."
Maher, who helped to build the neutrino detector and the mechanism that makes it possible to see the beam, wrote part of the data analysis codes that made that communication possible.
"We were able to test this idea that the group proposed. We successfully conveyed a message using neutrinos. We've been mocked a little because of our unimaginative message: 'neutrino.'" Maher laughed.
Although it was just a first step, Maher and her group proved it is possible to communicate with neutrinos. However, even if the technology is developed further, it could be several decades before neutrinos are used for communications.
Just as the early computers were very large, so is the detector. Scientists would have to develop a way to make the detector much smaller, as was done with computers.
"Because of the way we detect neutrinos, the detectors require a lot of mass. So we would have to develop a more clever way to do it," Maher said. "Our detector weighs thousands of pounds. It's not like you could put that on a submarine or a spaceship. We'd have to come up with a different way to build detectors. That's probably the technology that would have to advance if we wanted to use this."
Those in Maher's physics classes benefit from her involvement in this project.
"It's nice for my students because I can tell them about this research project, which is really cutting-edge research. No one has done this before. I can explain basically what the applications are and how we accomplished it. I'm an expert on it, as I've built part of it, so I know the ins and outs, and I can answer any questions they have. It was also fun to show my students the article written about us in the Economist."
MINERvA's paper on the project, "Demonstration of Communication Using Neutrinos" was published in Modern Physics Letters A journal. To read more about this project in the Economist, go to www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2012/03/practical-particle-physics.