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By Scott Sullivan

Editor

Therapy Ducks

Great news! Scientists, having buried 5,160 sensors more than a mile beneath South Pole ice for 13 years, have detected a neutrino.

For those who forgot, that’s a particle so tiny — its mass is less than one-millionth that of an electron — it can pass through solids. After photons, neutrinos are the most-abundant particle in the universe. If you hold your hand to the sky, a billion will pass through it in a second, scientists say.

Now at last they’ve found one, implications are massive. Neutrinos, formed in nuclear reactions, have no electrical charges, so their interactions with other particles are “clean,” say researchers.

Light can be blocked and gravity waves bent, but neutrinos pass unscathed through the most-violent events in the universe. One of these happened 4 billion years ago, scientists say, when a black hole in a distant galaxy spat out a powerful radiation jet full of neutrinos.

But they’re so small they seldom bump into atoms, meaning we can’t feel them. They don’t shed light, so we can’t see them. Where better to find them than under polar ice?

That’s why the National Science Foundation in 2005 started building the $270-million IceCube Neutrino Observatory. Its spherical sensors detected a light flash last month caused by a neutrino interacting with an atom, allowing researchers to extrapolate its energy level and where it came from.

“It’s crazy,” said Stockholm University astroparticle physicist Chad Finley, who spent 10 years coordinating the effort to pinpoint neutrinos’ origins. “That has to be the unluckiest neutrino ever.”

I love it when physicists read human traits into particles. “Neutrinos are the smoking gun,” added Finley, “that will tell us the source of cosmic rays.”

Why does is this important? Cosmic rays — made of atomic nuclei and highly-energetic protons — are, unlike neutrinos, charged, hence are deflected by Earth’s magnetic field. So we’re safe from them here, but they’d pose dangers for Mars-bound families unlike any the Griswolds faced in “National Lampoon’s Vacation.”

A team of more than 1,000 researchers heralded finding a neutrino as the dawn of a new era of astronomy. Now they can learn about the universe using these particles and ordinary light.

As a photographer I would like to know what light is “ordinary.” But why quibble? The age of George Jetson is at hand!

 

As scientists draw near another theory du jour about origins of the universe, how about autism? Dylan Dyke, 12, who has it, also has neighbors complaining his therapy ducks violate Georgetown Township zoning. The quackers get loose and poop in their lawns, neighbors say.

Psychologist Eric Dykstra says the ducks are emotional support animals for Dylan. They provide him an opportunity to self soothe and help him after a stressful school day, plus to learn interaction and socialization skills.

When he comes home each day, Dylan darts through the door and into the backyard to lead the birds on a “Duck Run.” Bill and Nibbles follow, hopping and flapping their wings. Maybe when he grows up he can de-stress getting trashed in bars like normal people.

Dylan’s parents, Mark and Jen Dyke, are seeking a variance for the ducks. If denied, “this will devastate Dylan,” they say.

 

I get it. My daughter Flannery is autistic. She loves her cats, dogs, bunnies and birds. When one eats another it’s my fault somehow. You don’t love your kid any less for what he or she is born with.

Knowing autism’s origins might help, but dealing with here and now at this point is more important. Should I “Duck Run” to vent? Help, Jane! Stop this crazy thing!

Should Flannery study neutrinos, she would join fellow autistic scientists like Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin and Sir Isaac Newton pursuing knowledge based on a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws.

 

How does neutrino hunting differ from chasing invisible things, like my daughter’s cats do? You figure it out. Have I not already explained enough?