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Cosmic ray research may hit Kansas

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, May 9, 2010, at 12:03 a.m.
  • Updated Monday, May 10, 2010, at 2:33 p.m.

Southwest Kansas is vast; it is yucca-studded; it is dark enough to see stars at night, what with so few yard lights. And if you wrote out its economic profile as a physics equation it might read:

Giant hog farms + giant feedlots + oil fields = SW Kansas.

Nobel Prize winners don't flock to southwest Kansas. Not yet.

But some giddy state officials and scientists now look to the stars. And to black holes.

There's serious talk about bringing hundreds of millions of dollars to Colorado and perhaps to Kansas to study cosmic rays — ultra-high-energy particles that strike us from galaxies and other places far, far away.

The Kansas Senate passed a resolution last month proposing to literally reach for the stars. With water tanks.

James Watson Cronin, a Nobel Prize winning physicist, talked to state legislators on April 28 about installing cosmic ray sensors in a water tank array stretching across thousands of square miles of the cornfields and cow pastures of Colorado and Kansas.

This is not pie in sky. Cronin and colleagues already have talked 16 countries into spending more than $50 million to build the Pierre Auger Cosmic Ray Observatory in Argentina. Now he wants Auger North, at $127 million.

Nick Solomey at Wichita State University, a physicist carrying the numbers of no less than 10 Nobel Prize winners in his cell phone, says luring astrophysicists to Kansas should be a no-brainer; it could bring the biggest brains in the world to study the deepest secrets of the universe.

Hog farms + feedlots + astrophysics.

Ad astra, baby.

It's far out

"The Nobel was in 1980, when I'd just turned 50," Cronin said by phone.

"I didn't want to rest on my laurels. Some of my colleagues when they win the Nobel, they rest on their laurels."

What Cronin did instead was ponder more secrets of the universe at a deep level. He'd sat as a young man in the classrooms of Enrico Fermi, who helped develop the first nuclear reactor, and Edward Teller, who helped develop the first hydrogen bomb.

Cronin, with colleague Alan Watson — another Nobel winner — developed the Pierre Auger Cosmic Ray Observatory, inaugurated in Argentina in 2008, the biggest cosmic ray detector ever built.

It studies ultra-energetic cosmic rays, the most energetic, rarest and most mysterious particles in the universe. What are they? How old are they? How incredibly far from us do they come from? What force of nature shoots such fantastically fast particles through the universe?

No one knows; Cronin proposes to find out.

Will this cure disease, create a new energy source?

No, Cronin said. It could mean permanent jobs for 20 scientists and staff; it could mean schoolchildren could see astrophysics on school tours. It would mean 400 scientists from all over the world dropping in on western Kansas/eastern Colorado once in a while to study, work and spend travel money here.

But, "It's basic science, far-out science, exploring phenomena of nature in the universe," Cronin said. "Its practical value is hard to assess, and probably doesn't exist.

"If you build a complicated piece of equipment you might discover practical uses. But it's an astronomy project."

He likes southwest Kansas; the vastness, flatness, low population and relatively high altitude (with a somewhat thinner atmosphere) are just what astrophysicists need.

The project could benefit a large number of construction workers, though; it could benefit southeastern Colorado, where scientists from that state are already planning to help set up the array, basing it near Lamar, Colo.

It could boost southwest Kansas.

Landowners must be persuaded to agree, perhaps with small tax credits for setting up water tanks and sensors.

"We need a huge area; the way it's laid out it could involve 8,000 square miles, which I know sounds incredible,'' Cronin said.

Scientists would install 12-foot-by-12-foot water tanks at regular intervals. They would study rays through their interaction with the water in 4,400 water tanks.

"It would look somewhat like stock watering tanks about every 1.5 miles,'' he said.

The tanks are meant to absorb cosmic ray particles; they would have sensors and be linked not only with each other but with a central observatory studying ultra-high-energy particles.

There are lower-energy cosmic rays given off by our sun, higher-range particles hitting us from inside our galaxy, and then these ultra-high-energy particles coming from way outside our galaxy.

No one is sure what sort of violent and enormous forces produce them. Colliding galaxies? Black holes fighting and colliding? Maybe.

"How an object in nature can produce a particle of so much energy is almost impossible to explain," Cronin said. "We're talking energy of such power... 10 to the seventh times, in other words 10 million times more energetic than anything produced in the new particle accelerator in Geneva.

"What nature can do is extraordinary, and we just want to learn about it."

Cronin has been talking with state officials and scientists in Colorado for years now. But scientists in Kansas, especially Solomey from WSU, began energetically asking that Kansas be part of what amounts to an extra-galactic study of the universe.

20 miles over

State officials sound almost giddy about the project.

State Senate President Stephen Morris, who's from Hugoton, in southwest Kansas, said the science being proposed here "is 20 miles over my head," but that he understands economic opportunity when he sees it.

"My understanding is that a large part of the funding would come from the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, and the rest of it split among a number of foreign countries," he said. "They might ask us for some seed money, to build power lines and help out with tax credits for the landowners involved."

The state and its universities also would need to designate a university with an endowed scholar for the project. Morris said he'd prefer WSU, but there's already a glitch — WSU is talking about getting rid of its physics department, combining it with engineering.

"I hope they don't do that," Morris said. "We'd need to have a separate physics department."

His idea, though he hasn't taken this up officially with fellow legislators, would be to propose a partnership with the state of Colorado, which already plans to center the North American array at Lamar, about 33 miles west of the Kansas state line. Morris said the two states could build the array over thousands of square miles of Colorado and Kansas and build the observatory along U.S. 50 straddling the state line, which lies two miles west of Coolidge, Kan. The two states could share costs and astro-glory.

"I just don't see a down side to this," Morris said.

Neither does Tom Thornton, known as an energetic guardian of state grants for science. Thornton is president and CEO of the Kansas Bioscience Authority, which evaluates and gives grants to Kansas scientists.

Thornton knew Cronin and his work even before Morris called about this project. As a staff member for former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, Thornton familiarized himself years ago with Cronin and his work, done outside Chicago at the Fermilab, a proton-antiproton particle accelerator.

"The possible spin-outs to all this are unbelievable," Thornton said. "This project is not only entirely credible but there's a real buzz to this work in the scientific world... superconductivity, particle physics."

Schoolchildren would love it, he said. So would Kansas scientists.

"Researchers might come here from all over the world," he said.

Astrophysics central

If they do come, and if they build that astrophysics laboratory just west of Coolidge as Morris suggests, they'd be welcome in town, but not find many people doing the welcoming, the Coolidge mayor said.

Ruth Schwerdfeger, 76, has lived in and around Coolidge since she arrived 57 years ago. Where Cronin is blunt about the practical applications of cosmic rays, she's blunt about southwestern Kansas.

"There's nothing here," she says. "As an incorporated town we barely function."

They get spotty cell phone service. Coolidge's gravel streets get rutted after a rare rain; her grandson planes them down with a tractor and blade. Going to a doctor in Wichita, which she does, means a five-hour drive one way. The town has a grain elevator and a post office.

Young people mostly leave Hamilton County when they come of age. Coolidge had 150 residents when she married into the local farm population in 1953; now there are 80.

An avid reader, Schwerdfeger has kept up on Cronin's Auger array.

She thinks western Kansans would like having astrophysicists around. She's not sure they know what astrophysics is.

"My grandson might know; maybe my daughter-in-law.

"I'm not against anything like that."

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com.

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