Fun with Physics: The woman leading the hunt for nature's most elusive particles

Janet Conrad received the 2001 Maria Goeppert-Mayer Award for outstanding contribution to physics by a young woman. In this New Yorker story, K. C. Cole describes the lengths to which experimental physicists must go in order to detect and study the properties of neutrinos, which barely interact with any other matter. One would get the impression from the article that Conrad is doing most of the science by herself; in fact, she is one of the leaders of a large team of scientists from many institutions who are trying to determine whether there is a fourth variety of neutrino in addition to the known three. They are using a huge vat of mineral oil (Cole persists in calling it baby oil), surrounded by phototubes that detect Cerenkov and scintillation radiation that results from collisions between neutrinos produced from the Fermilab proton accelerator and atoms in the detector. A related Japanese experiment, in which a water-filled detector was used, recently had a catastrophic accident, in which seven thousand phototubes were destroyed. There is a very informative Web site about the Fermilab experiment that includes a video tour of the experiment. Prof. Conrad has been instrumental in encouraging and bringing many more women into graduate school in particle physics. Half of the graduate students in her home department at Columbia University are now women.

Pick Attribution: 

K. C. Cole

Publication Date: 
Monday, June 2, 2003