Seeing Through Solid Earth

Earth - Terra SatNASA Earth Observing System – Terra Satellite Image

A while ago I wrote a little thing that tried to give a perspective of just how huge Earth is, while at the same time focusing on how small our little solar neighborhood was. But I think we all know there is a lot of mass beneath our feet that goes down, down, down through the monsters and burning core, emerging on the other side, most likely in the thin coating of water that mostly surrounds our planet.

However, solid things aren’t always so solid. Our local producer of centralized light and energy spews forth quite the assortment of fun stuff. As an interesting aside, we have a Fundamentalist Christian as an old family friend who has taken to, in his retirement, disproving “scientifically”, scientific things that bother him. The light and hope of the world… Anyway, Evolution again – these people claim it is disproved by the scientific law of entropy (second law of thermodynamics), where all matter moves toward its less organized, more random state. Certainly not more complex and organized like Evolution would have it be. Strangely, I can’t seem to convince him that entropy happens in a vacuum, devoid of new energy, and we, on the Earth, have energy showering down upon us at all times from our sparked-up giant blob of gases in the center of our solar system. I ask him, why is Evolution such a thorn in your side? You’re behaving as if it’s the undoing of all you believe in, and the ruin of all our lives if we accept it, much as the Christians did when they were faced with the scientific fact that we humans were not the center of the universe, but rather the Sun.

I don’t know why he, and so many others, find Evolution so threatening to their beliefs. We learn and we change, over time. Well, most of us. Some of us only change when forced to by biology, physics, or a big stick. Dare I say, only when external forces act upon us, while holding as rigidly as possible to a defined internal? (Damn your brain books Mike, there exists religiously to me a quality of essence to thought, choice and experience beyond biological constraint.)

So there’s this solid Earth we’re standing on. Pretty huge. And we plod around on its surface as our own little glob of bound-together atoms, trying to get more money, look pretty, sort things out, have orgasms with people or things, and perpetuate ourselves in one way or another. Some globs of atoms even try to help other globs out. That’s not very entropic. It must be the Sun.

Ah, but the Sun in giving all this energy is slowly burning itself out. You know that the charged energy it radiates would evaporate our atmosphere were it not for the Earth’s magnetic core keeping out the vast majority. But the Sun also radiates things that pass straight through — straight through our magnet shield, straight through our bodies, and straight through the entirety of the Earth, as if none of it was even here. Thousands of billions of particles radiated from the Sun pass through our bodies each second. They travel unhindered and unaffected by the electrical charges of our atoms, passing through the enormous empty space that surrounds each atom that comprises our bodies, at nearly the speed of light. They pass completely through our planet, as if it were less than vapor. Little neutrinos, with their almost zero mass. And they can be used in all kinds of recipes for explaining stuff.

You have to wonder how we can see something that passes through everything. Well, we can’t. But we can see the effect they have upon things we can see, and as we observe the effects upon the things around us, we can piece together what they’re all about to a large degree.

Super-Kamiokanda Nearly Full Of WaterKamioka Observatory, ICRR(Institute for Cosmic Ray Research), The University of Tokyo

These neutrinos are very sneaky though. If we built a solid lead block as large as the whole solar system, pretty much none of them would be stopped. Not to be discouraged, the Japanese built a large globe of water with many thousands of light detectors. It’s the University of Tokyo’s Super-Kamiokande. They built it far underground (well, three thousand feet or so) so that the Earth would act as a filter against all the less subtle particles. Every once in a while, a neutrino will hit an atom of water. Well, not really an atom, but rather a more fundamental particle, like a proton within a given atom. If a certain type of neutrino (beta, of three types) hits a proton, it changes the proton into a neutron and a positron (an antimatter electron) is flung out. It isn’t long until this positron annihilates itself against an electron, and this produces a flash of light as gamma radiation. Now that we can see. In fact, we can use it to see through the Earth if we like.

Sun As Seen Through The EarthYou’ll see here a little picture of the sun shining through all the solid density of our planet. Remember, this picture only shows the tiniest fraction of what shines straight through the world. If we could actually see it all, it would be blindingly bright.

Some of you with some chemistry background have realized that when you change the number of protons in an atom, you have changed an atom into a completely different atom. For example, hit by a neutrino, Oxygen magically transforms into Nitrogen, and Carbon into Boron. It’s probably a very good thing that most of the “substance” of the universe is immaterial to a neutrino.

As I mentioned, science has all kinds of uses for the neutrino in its theories, ranging from gravitation to an explanation of Dark Matter, though all of it is currently highly speculative. For me, these all-pervasive ghostly particles, as they are often called, are not really the ghostly thing. The rest of solid matter is.