Thursday, June 19, 2014

Ten Things I Learned During My Trip to SNOLAB

By Maxine Myre
1. Why are they 2 km underground, anyways?
Getting to SNOLAB is a whole process.  The first step in reaching the lab is getting geared up with mining clothes and descending 2070m (or just over 2 km) underground in a mine shaft. The 2 km of rock above the SNOLAB facilities protects the sensitive detection system from cosmic rays.

2. An entirely new appreciation for the term 'clean-freak'.
SNOLAB is a Class2000 clean lab.  This means that only 2000 particles of dust and other materials are permitted in a 1-meter cubic space.  If we compare this to the 35 million particles per cubic meter found in everyday environments, that's clean.  But remember, workers have walked 1.8 km in a mine drift before arriving at the lab doors!  Workers must fully shower and change clothing before entering the lab.  Now that the workers are clean, there's all the equipment!  Every single piece of equipment brought in is cleaned before installation.  This even includes the many nuts and bolts on the machines.

3. SNOLAB has its own sewage system facility underground.

SNOLAB has something special that is unique to underground facilities but rarely mentioned: flushing toilets.  This is possible due to their small underground sewage treatment facility, which can support up to 100 people.  How does it work?  Aerobic bacteria are responsible for breaking down waste products.

4. There is still so much to discover about the Universe.
Experiments conducted at SNOLAB are attempting to answer some of the most fundamental questions remaining in physics - from the development and fate of the Universe to the workings of the smallest sub-atomic particles.  It turns out that there is more that we don't know than we do know!  In fact, what we know as matter only makes up about 5% of what exists!

5. Dark matter is different than dark energy.
For non-physicits, it is difficult to distinguish between similar sounding terms like dark matter and dark energy.  Without going into too many details, dark matter is different than dark energy.

6. Multiple Instruments are trying to detect the same thing.
Physicists are pretty sure they know how much dark matter there is, but do not know what it is.  In the quest for dark matter, multiple experiments are seeking the successful detection of dark matter.  Each of these experiments is located in a separate cavity connected by hallways.

7. International collaborations are key to success.
SNOLAB functions as a collaboration between five Canadian Universities - namely, Carleton University, Laurentian University, Queen's University, University of Alberta, and Université de Montréal.  In addition to being a national research facility, international partnerships play an important role in conducting each experiment.

8. Scientists at SNOLAB are accessible and willing to share their enthusiasm.
Unlike the physicists portrayed in shows like The Big Bang Theory, the scientists and other workers at SNOLAB are friendly and engaging.  While concepts such as astroparticle physics, the search for dark matter, and neutrinos can often seem too complicated to understand, SNOLAB scientists always make an effort in explaining their research to anyone who will listen.

9. Exciting projects are coming to SNOLAB.
SNOLAB operations began in 1990 and show no signs of slowing down.  Along with their current projects on neutrinos and dark matter, their scope of research is expanding to geology, mining, and even biology by exploring deep sub-surface life.

10. SNOLAB is an internationally known facility.
I'm proud to know that such cutting-edge science is ongoing in Sudbury.  Thanks to SNOLAB, Canada remains a key player in the search for answers to the big questions of the Universe.

- Maxine Myre, SciComm '14

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