Prototypes and Experiments

Return of the Telegraph

Radio waves are at the very heart and soul of our technology today. Ever since the telegraph could go wireless, we’ve been harnessing radio waves for everything from sending data from the moon to sending txt messages to our BFFs. But radio has a big problem: line of sight.

Apollo experienced a blackout period while it was on the far side of the moon. Since we have never seen the far side of the moon, we had no idea if there were Decepticons waiting there to destroy Neil, Buzz and Mike. That led to some tense moments while mission control waited for the re-establishment of coms.

Radio is also limited on our own planet. Mountain ranges and the depths of the oceans block radio transmissions. This limits communication from submarines to their command bases, and prevents the Iluminati from talking wirelessly from their base below Denver International to their alien overlords in Hollywood, CA.

Luckily, there are smart people out there. People who looked at Fermilab’s MINVERvA neutrino detector and though, “Hey, neutrinos pass through damn near everything! What if we could send a message using neutrinos and read it using a neutrino detector?” And so they did.

The idea actually came out of the glorious decade we call the 1980s when Dan Stancil was at Carnegie Mellon University. He was fascinated by the idea of using particles that rarely react with other particles for communication. Fast forward 30 years and he finally was able to make his dream come true. An electrical engineer not named Howard Wolowitz (because he’s a mechanical engineer) wrote the message in 7-bit ASCII code so the computer could read the 1s and 0s. A 1 was represented by a pulse of neutrinos, and a 0 was represented by the absence of a pulse.

It worked! After only 2 tries, they got the computer to read the message. What did it say? “Neutrino.” Clever nerds!

Of course, this worked from 0.6 miles away. Neutrinos, like radio waves, scatter in all directions so a much more powerful transmitter or detector are needed for larger distances. Considering the size of MINERvA, I doubt you’ll be seeing one on a submarine anytime soon.

[Ed. A tip o’ the hat to reader zsm for sending us the link to the Symmetry article about this crazy experiment. If you see something that you think I could tie to The Big Bang Theory, please send it to tips at atomictoasters dot com.]

[Image Credit: Fermilab]

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