By Carol Smith
There are limits to our knowing in the vast atomic wilderness.
The road to the Mozumi mine winds up along the Takahari River in the Japanese Alps, a four-hour train ride north of Tokyo up the coast that faces Russia. A blue heron swoops off the riverbank and a hawk floats above us as our bus zig-zags up the side of Mt. Kamioka. In the valley we’ve left behind, newly planted rice paddies shine like mirrors in the sun, and a red bridge arches across jade-green water, a still life of images as old as any brushed in wet black ink on rice paper. I’ve come halfway around the world to find this place, oddly drawn here in search of something. I feel a mounting sense of excitement as we barrel straight toward the abandoned mine shaft that will carry me to the heart of the mountain, and the heart of an even older mystery.
Buried more than half a mile under this mountain is a stainless steel tank, 13 stories tall that holds 50,000 tons of ultra-pure water, enough to fill nearly 2,000 Olympic pools. This is the Super-Kamiokande neutrino observatory, one of the largest observatories of its kind in the world. Down this abandoned shaft where miners used to carve zinc from the earth, scientists are now trying to extract the secrets of the universe.
Neutrinos are among the most elusive of elementary particles. We are awash in a sea of them, relics of the Big Bang, but they pass through us, ghost-like, disturbing nothing as though we were so much empty space. For decades, scientists thought they had no mass. But it was here, in this mine, where they first found evidence that neutrinos have a tiny bit of mass, enough to change the calculus of the universe.
The trip to Japan was happenstance. A friend had enough miles for an extra free ticket to Tokyo. Would I like to go?
I jumped at the chance. My world had recently imploded—the death of my son, a painful divorce, a move across three states. I had lived in Japan for a year when I was a child, while my father, a geophysicist, pursued a sabbatical at the University of Tokyo. I wanted nothing more than to go back in time.
I was not quite a little girl and not quite a teen when I first landed at Haneda Airport in Tokyo. There are pictures of me with long pigtails in a navy blue jumper, my crew socks pooling in my canvas loafers. We’d settled just outside Tokyo in Ogikubo, in a small house on a courtyard shared with a Japanese family and another American family. It was a strange sensation, caught between two worlds, feeling for the first time how different life could be than the one I’d known in the suburbs of Los Angeles. I slept on tatami mats and learned the intricate calligraphy of hiragana and katakana. I watched the seasons change at a Shinto shrine down the street, its snow-covered paths melting into petals in the spring. I learned the elements of the tea ceremony and how to fold paper into cranes.
At age 11, my mind was ahead of a body that stubbornly refused to enter puberty. After school, I burrowed into my shelf of Nancy Drew mysteries: The Mystery of the Tolling Bell; The Secret of the Old Clock. But the big mystery for me that year was when my narrow chest would sprout breasts. I kept watch in the mirror for any sign they might be budding out.
At night, hunkered down on the floor under a thick, quilt-like kakebuton, I thumbed through Gone with the Wind, my first “adult” book, reading and re-reading the passages where Rhett seizes Scarlett and carries her up the stairs, flushing under my freckles each time. I wondered: What lay ahead for me? Where was I going? Who would I become?
Refrains of those old Nancy Drew titles echo through my head as we draw closer to the mine. Here I am stepping into the mystery of the abandoned mine, searching for a clue to why things turn out the way they do.
The entrance of the mine is outlined with what looks like a makeshift green torii gate, the kind that used to mark the entrance to the shrine I visited as a child. Three shimenawa—rope tassels made of rice straw—dangle from the top, dividing the tangible world from the intangible one. There is a Shinto belief that natural objects—trees and mountains—contain a spiritual essence, a kami, or divine force of nature. It seems a curiously apropos entry to this place where the scientists are trying to reconcile the deepest questions of the universe.
I am not a scientist, but growing up the daughter of one, I had always put my faith in science to have answers. But all the answers I learned growing up, were no longer absolutes. Nothing stayed the same. I grew up on Newton’s laws of motion and Maxwell’s equations. I loved their orderly mathematics and the linear way they predicted the world around me. But now we were lost in a vast atomic wilderness, where the old maps no longer applied.
Understanding neutrinos could provide at least a sign post in this new reality. Neutrinos are one of the 12 elementary particles that particle physicists believe make up all the known matter of the universe. The 12 particles form a complex taxonomy with their strange and charming quarks and leptons. But this proven model is still not sufficient. At least 90 percent of the mass of the universe is missing, unaccounted for by standard theories. This so-called dark matter, and its accompanying dark energy, seems to be what’s driving the expansion of the universe.
The discovery that neutrinos have mass could explain at least some of the missing mass. Though as it turns out, not much. Astrophysicists, and their particle counterparts, are the ultimate revisionists. With each new discovery, old models fall away. Scientists seem at once perpetually closer to and farther from a theory that will unify all the known forces in our universe—gravity, electro-magnetism, the strong and weak forces that hold the nucleus together—into one elegant equation.
We put on white hardhats and drive into the cool darkness. Just shy of a mile in, we stop at the door to the lab itself and leave our shoes at the door, as is customary before entering a Japanese house. The lab is a warren of rooms lined with computer and books, the detritus of graduate students and scientists spending long shifts underground. Above them, an “event screen” hangs on the wall.
I try to imagine the river of neutrinos flowing through me now—those born in the thermonuclear furnace of the sun. Only one in 100 billion of them will bump into anything, in this case, a molecule of water inside the detector
The interior of the detector is like a still lake under a false sky, winking with glass photo-multiplier tubes like stars. The collision will set off a cascade of events that emits a kind of “sonic boom” of pale blue light, known as Cherenkov radiation, which in turn is detected and amplified by those tubes. Each collision is captured on the event screen outside, a random ping reminding us of all we don’t know. They show up as eerie green tracings, emerging on the screen like a handprint on the cave of the universe. Standing there, I’m struck by how very old this is, this impulse to wait in the dark for a mystery to be revealed.
I don’t know it then, but a year later, this detector will also implode—thousands of the photomultiplier tubes shattering in a chain reaction, the glass as fragile as cherry blossoms. It will take the lab several years to rebuild. In that time, the search for a grand unified theory of everything will have grown ever more complicated, a complex origami of folded dimensions and parallel universes.
Leaving the mine and blinking into the white sunlight, I feel a peace that’s eluded me in the turmoil of the last few years. I no longer need the answers I thought I did, about why things happen, or what will become of me. There are limits to our knowing. We only get to observe some tiny sliver of our reality at a time, and the view keeps changing. That’s part of the beauty, like looking through a kaleidoscope. It’s enough to know the universe is held together by the felt presence of the unseen.
That night, I watch the moon hanging over the rice paddies as my bullet train ricochets back toward Tokyo. It’s a comfort that the moon presents always the same face to the earth, a peculiarity of celestial equations that lends a certain security in an insecure universe.
Carol Smith is a Seattle writer whose poetry and fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in the literary journals Signs of Life, Mississippi Review, Pooled Ink, and Oberon Poetry. She was selected as a finalist for the 2015 Prime Number Magazine Awards for Creative Nonfiction and for the 2015 Arts & Letters fiction prize. One of her pieces, “The Cipher in Room 214,” was the first story in the anthology The Best Creative Nonfiction (W. W. Norton & Company, 2007). She works as an editor for public radio in Seattle.