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UW-River Falls Prof. Jim Madsen stands in front of a C-17 military transport aircraft in Christchurch, New Zealand, before departing to McMurdo Station on the coast of Antarctica on the way to the South Pole. Madsen has made two trips there, but says data is transmitted north over satellites so traveling to the South Pole isn't necessary to do the science. Submitted photo

Ponder this 'strange telescope' buried deep at the South Pole

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Findings from extraordinary scientific research in the heart of Antarctica -- the IceCube Neutrino Observatory -- that includes a UW-River Falls connection will be presented on campus and at a Main Street café the week of Nov. 26-Dec. 1.

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"The IceCube is the biggest and strangest telescope in the word, and the largest science project ever funded in Wisconsin," says Jim Madsen, UWRF Physics Department chairman and professor who's been to the South Pole to help set up the IceCube Observatory.

"It involves more than 250 scientists around the world in 38 institutions. Despite trying technological challenges associated with new ideas that need to work in the extreme Antarctic environment, construction of the project was completed in six years -- on time, under budget, and exceeding specifications."

As described in a February 2007 Journal story, the IceCube telescope, with its network of cylindrical light-detecting cables, was being assembled and gradually submerged into borings more than a mile deep under crystal-clear ice.

The intent was to chart ghostly subatomic particles called neutrinos that come from decaying radioactive elements.

Neutrinos are born by spatial disruptions, like the collision of two stars. Billions pass unseen through the Earth.

"The neutrinos are produced far out in space but collide near the South Pole with atoms," Madsen said. "Before they collide, they are invisible."

Madsen said scientists are already translating early IceCube data.

"The big things we have seen are, we confirmed that neutrinos don't travel faster than the speed of light," he said. "We also have shown that at higher energies, neutrinos continue to change from one type to another as they travel.

"It is like you buy a Buick, but as you drive, it continually changes to a Ford then to a Honda then back to a Buick. Only when you stop does it stop changing.

"So your neighbor only sees one type of car in the driveway when you get home. Each day though it could be either a Buick, a Ford, or a Honda."

For those curious to learn more about the work at IceCube Neutrino Observatory, here are the three local presentations:

--Noon-1 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 27, "The Reinvented Planetarium: Digital Projection System," open house, at 201 Agricultural Science building on the UWRF campus.

--3:30-5:30pm, Tuesday, Nov. 27, "Meet a Scientist," at Dish and the Spoon Café, 208 N. Main St., downtown River Falls.

--7-9 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 27, "IceCube: A New View of the Universe from the South Pole," at the UWRF University Center Ballroom. (Those who attend can try out cold-weather gear, use a computer to control lights and see how scientists try to find nearly invisible particles from deep space.

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Phil Pfuehler
Phil Pfuehler has been editor of the River Falls Journal since 1991.
(715) 426-1050
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