How A Failed Nuclear Experiment Accidentally Gave Birth To Neutrino Astronomy
“The scientific importance of this result cannot be overstated. It marked the birth of neutrino astronomy, just as the first direct detection of gravitational waves from merging black holes marked the birth of gravitational wave astronomy. It was the birth of multi-messenger astronomy, marking the first time that the same object had been observed in both electromagnetic radiation (light) and via another method (neutrinos).
It showed us the potential of using large, underground tanks to detect cosmic events. And it causes us to hope that, someday, we might make the ultimate observation: an event where light, neutrinos, and gravitational waves all come together to teach us all about the workings of the objects in our Universe.”
When you build an experiment to look for an effect you’ve never seen before, it’s an extremely risky endeavor. If what you’re expecting to find is actually there, the payoff is tremendous: like the LHC finding the Higgs. If there’s nothing to find, like the direct detection searches for WIMP dark matter, the null result can be viewed as a colossal (and expensive) failure. One such failure was the construction of an enormous, 3,000+ ton detector facility to look for proton decays. The proton, as you may have heard, is stable, so in that regard, the experiments looking for decays were wildly unsuccessful. But that same setup is extremely sensitive to neutrinos, and in 1987, we used a nucleon decay experiment to successfully find the first neutrinos from beyond the Milky Way!