The Two-Way
2:00 pm
Thu March 15, 2012

First Neutrino Message Sent Through Rock; Could One Travel Back In Time?

"Researchers from the University of Rochester and North Carolina State University have for the first time sent a message using a beam of neutrinos — nearly massless particles that travel at almost the speed of light," U of R reports.

And they pushed the message — which simply spelled out the world "Neutrino" — through "240 meters of stone" (787 feet).

That's right, as Live Science puts it: "For the first time, scientists have used neutrinos — the exotic fundamental particles that routinely pass right through Earth — to send a message through the ground."

Now, we're a long way from being able to send a note to someone on the other side of the world through the world. Or, say, to a submarine deep below the ocean. The scientists had to use the particle accelerator at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois to make the beams of neutrinos.

And, "only one in 10 billion neutrinos are detected," the scientists say. According to Live Science, they had to build a detector that "contains layers of different materials, including carbon, lead and iron. As the neutrinos pass through it, occasionally a neutrino will collide head-on with the nucleus of one of these atoms, creating other particles that are visible to the detector."

But, the possibilities are intriguing. "In principle, you could have straight-line communication right through the center of the Earth, without satellites or cables," study leader Dan Stancil, an electrical engineer at North Carolina State University, told Live Science. "I can imagine there could be certain strategic situations where that could be very valuable."

Then there's this: Though it seems unlikely that scientists at the CERN particle physics lab in Switzerland did, as they once thought, push some neutrinos past the speed of light, what if that were possible? Then, as Live Science says, "that means a neutrino communications system could potentially send messages back in time."

Or did we just say that?

Our friends at the 13.7 blog make sense of this sort of stuff all the time.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.