Make a high-energy particle and ‘the world doesn’t know how to solve this problem’

Anyone who didn’t know already probably noticed this morning’s science.

Scientists are moving fast to assess a high-energy particle that has already narrowly escaped detection. It’s called the picosecond pulse, or Omicron, meaning “four-hundredth of a millionth” of a second. It’s a fast, relatively inexpensive solution to a “problem the world just doesn’t know how to solve,” says Joseph Michalski, a physicist at Johns Hopkins University who co-authored the new paper on Omicron.

Omicron is the bright, high-energy cosmic ray often produced by the nuclear reactions that give birth to stars, gas clouds and black holes. Usually they hurtle outward from a nearby galaxy, getting as close as 1,000 light-years or even more. But this latest experiment was done in a built-in oven, so, at a single-decade lifetime, it would travel more than 15,000 light-years. That’s about as far as every other Earth-bound particle accelerator.

The engineers in Tokyo-based Eentek are putting in a sky-lit oven that’s 21 feet wide, 15 feet high and 9 feet long. The oven is in the basement of a research institute that is guarded by 2,000-ft-tall iron gates. After the preheat for the Omicron experiment (and then a short period of subfreezing), the oven is welded into place, then filled with ionized glass which, when warmed up again, will eject particles until every conceivable distance is covered.

The goal: To find out exactly how fast the light pulses radiate — how quickly Omicron zips around the galaxy — and to make sure that no intelligence, and no particle accelerator, can recognize Omicron before it makes it to the end of the universe.

The entire project took 17 months. Most scientists that we talked to today were deeply excited about the discovery.

“It’s all science for me,” says Robert M. Price, a physicist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “Like all exciting experiments in science, if you don’t have some kind of release from it, you’re missing something.”

But there’s work left to do. Today, Michalski got a call from Kevin Young, a physicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. He wanted to know if Omicron measured, at all, the height of the ice. Young wanted to know what Omicron’s exact speed was, if it got as far as it did by gravity.

Michalski threw out data from the lab’s last outburst, in 2015, to understand the patterns. He was able to say yes and no to Young’s question.

The stakes are high for both, for the scientists and the aliens. For the former, there’s a silver lining. Omicron is cheap: Far cheaper to make and consume than the world’s particle accelerators, which cost billions of dollars. The more Omicron is known, the better chance we have to pick it up later. And, for the aliens, there’s hope. Lessons will help us understand how the particles are traveling, so if there is an alien civilization out there, they can better comprehend what they encounter.

Dora Palomba, a physicist at the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics, near Leipzig, Germany, was among the early pros to congratulate Michalski. On a personal level, Palomba worries that one day, her children will encounter Omicron. As of now, she’s more focused on finding out if she’s just found one of the most baffling mysteries in the universe: why we have the physics and technology to do this study.

“Everything happens too fast to really notice,” Palomba says.

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