Neutrinos: An uncharged elementary particle that has 2 forms associated respectively with electrons and muons and is massless…… Websters Dictionary
It is the week of the fourth of July and we are in the Black Hills. The temperature is a suffocating 102 degrees today, 99 degrees yesterday, and forecast to be 99 tomorrow. The rest of the seven-day forecast calls for temperatures to be in the triple digits, an unusually hot weather pattern even for this area. This is the weather that typically stalls out over Arizona and New Mexico. For some of us, this scorching-hot dry climate has a profoundly crippling effect, as in– it steam rolls you down flat. It takes your breath away, your body movements become labored and slow. It addles your brain! To conserve energy, you don’t feel like doing much. It forces you to isolate yourself in an air-conditioned structure, be it motel, store (Wall Drug, Walmart), restaurant or government building—this in a place where you came to enjoy the great outdoors. This is not where you want to be.
For those of you that don’t know what Wall Drug is, it is simply a tourist trap extraordinaire situated in Wall, South Dakota just a hundred yards off the main east/west interstate freeway– I 80. Advertised on billboards for 250 miles either way touting free ice water and 5 cent coffee, it is the Gatlinburg of the West. Wall Drug is the sole reason for this town to exist. I don’t even think that there is a real pharmacy in the place. Yes, there are two gas stations, a couple chain motels, and a couple mediocre restaurants that have built up around it, but Wall drug is a city block of overpriced souvenir shops and hokey re-creations of the old west all built to get you to come inside, drink the free ice water, and by the way, spend your money. Having driven by it many times in the past, this is the first time I have ever gone into it and now only because it was so damned hot outside that we sought shelter inside. I did not spend a penny there! Now I feel guilty. Since we enjoyed their air conditioning, maybe I should have bought a coke or something.
Who knew back in April when we planned this that an unprecedented heat wave would fall upon us, reminiscent of a catastrophe that befell the Donner Party, except it was heat, not snow! We were trapped for days in Wall Drug, Walmart, oh my! No, no, no, we did not reach the point of considering eating each other, but the heat was cooking my brain. Note to self: next time visit this area in either May or September when it is predictably cooler and you might be more able to actually enjoy the area.
The South Dakota climate is considered harsh with its temperature and climate extremes, whereas our Cleveland area is considered moderate and temperate. South Dakota average annual rainfall is comparatively very low and is downright desert-like east of the Black Hills because the mountains intercept all the clouds causing it to rain on them. Another thing to consider: Thunder storms out west tend to be rather common but very isolated, small, and brief, affecting– wetting down– only a very small portion of the landscape. Then it immediately gets hot again, evaporating all the water. Consequently, you have the arid Badlands just thirty miles east of the green Black Hills. Yesterday seemed refreshingly cooler because we were in the mountains for the better part of the day. Each day that we have been in the mountains it has rained and even hailed, which thankfully cooled the atmosphere down into the 70s.
We spent the day traveling up Spearfish Canyon, a spectacular drive up into the mountains that ends in the town of Lead (pronounce Leed) which is connected to Deadwood, the famous red-light district cowboy town of yore. Both are now casino gambling meccas, half of which are located in the original 150-year-old buildings. The other half are modern structures that you might see in Las Vegas and are in stark contrast to the old Lead-Deadwood architecture. The red-light district these days, I don’t even want to hazard a guess……
At Lead we spent time at the Homestake Gold mine which was one of the most productive and deepest gold mines in the world, being over one-mile deep. It is also high in the mountains so it was much cooler there. It was in production for nearly a hundred years. I have been to this site several times before, even down in it in the past. Out in front of the brand new visitor’s center is this ten-foot-tall circle of steel, a cross section of pipe really, prominently displayed outside the mine. I puzzled about this, wondering what it had to do with the mine. I don’t remember it being there before. The focus in the past has always been on gold mining. It reminded me of a mammoth hamster wheel. Could it be that the mine was powered by hamsters running in a wheel? It’s the heat again isn’t it! Naaaaw, couldn’t be, could it? But what was this thing? I just assumed it had to do with mining equipment.
However, the most recent advertising focus has changed, perhaps letting the cat out of the bag about a certain astrophysics experiment that took place during the 1960s and until recently apparently was either kept secret or downplayed. Perhaps it was felt that the general public was not ready or able to handle astrophysics information. I know I wasn’t. I’m still not.
Because of its depth in solid rock the mine became the site of a scientific experiment during the 1960s that ultimately confirmed the existence of neutrinos, particles much smaller than atoms. Beyond that, this is about as far as I can go to explain what neutrinos are. If you read the intro to this article you can see why. What in the heck are muons and why have they been kept from us for 60 years? Is this Amelia Earhart all over again? It’s the heat again isn’t it? My daughter says that they are remnants of the “Big Bang” that created our solar system and that they are supposedly buzzing around and through us even now. Silly me! I thought that they were some type of South American mammal akin to rats and chinchillas, and when I saw the big hamster wheel out front of the mine……….well, you know….. What do I know? It turns out that those are Nutria—south American rats that I was thinking of. Suffice it to say that this astro-physics research was extremely ground breaking and important, and is now increasingly touted as such at the mine visitors center. The ten-foot cross section displayed outside the mine was a section of a large chamber that trapped “heavy water” in which the neutrinos were gathering. Neutrinos are small, but heavy I guess—fat little buggars! I wonder if they were buzzing in and out of my peanut butter and jelly sandwich that I had for lunch? And what does it all mean? I’ll tell you, this heat is getting to me. Where is that astrophysist that is often on TV now that we need him?