COLLABORATION

How did the universe survive the Big Bang? UK spends big to find out

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Why do we live in a universe dominated by matter? How did the universe survive the Big Bang?

The UK has poured £30 million into the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE), a global science project that seeks to uncover new insights into what is perhaps the greatest mystery of all time: how the universe survived the Big Bang.

The global collaboration brings together the scientific communities of the UK and 31 countries from across Asia, Europe and the Americas to build the world’s most advanced neutrino observatory. 

Hosted at the United States Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and South Dakota’s Sanford Underground Research Facility, and operated by more than 1,000 physicists from 170 institutions, the experiment could lead to profound changes in our understanding of the universe, chiefly what happened after the Big Bang.

It will study neutrinos, the most abundant matter particles in the universe, and their antimatter counterparts antineutrinos in unprecedented detail. Discoveries over the past half-century have put neutrinos in the spotlight for further research into several fundamental questions about the nature of matter and the evolution of the universe — questions DUNE hopes to answer.

“The results might finally explain why the matter and antimatter created in the big bang did not almost completely annihilate and disappear, and why instead, enough matter was left over to create galaxies, stars, planets, and us humans to look at it all,” explains University of Bristol Professor of Physics and Bristol DUNE project Principal Investigator Jonas Rademacker.

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The goals of the project are threefold: 

  • Study an intense 1,3km-long neutrino beam to discover what happened after the Big Bang; ie. Are neutrinos the real reason the universe is made of matter?
  • Use 70,000 tonnes of liquid argon to look for proton decay and inch closer to realising Einstein’s grand quest of a unified theory of matter and energy; and
  • Catch neutrinos from a supernova to watch the formation of neutron stars and black holes in real-time

The UK’s multimillion-pound investment will help DUNE physicists advance this mission. 

According to a media release, the funds from the UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is a four-year construction grant to 13 educational institutions and to STFC’s Rutherford Appleton and Daresbury Laboratories.

The initial injection represents the first of two stages to support the DUNE construction project in the UK, which will run until 2026. In total, total investment will reach £45 million.

Different elements of the experiment are being worked on concurrently by different collaborators around the world.

DUNE to unlock Big Bang mystery
Insider the first ProtoDUNE detector. Source: University of Birmingham

On its part, the UK bis contributing scientific expertise and components to help the experiment and construct the facility.

For example, its scientists and engineers will design and produce the principle detector components at the core of the DUNE detector, which will comprise four large tanks each containing 17,000 kg of liquid argon. 

UK contributors will also develop a high-speed data acquisition system to record signals from the detector, as well as the software needed to interpret the data and provide answers to scientific questions.

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“Neutrinos are not well understood, and DUNE will measure them to exquisite precision. However, it is going to produce data at a colossal rate, far higher than we can store and analyse,” says Dr Jim Brooke, who will soon take over the role of PI from colleague Professor Rademacker.

“Here in Bristol, we are drawing on our experience from the Large Hadron Collider, to build a system that can identify neutrino interactions in the data, almost in real-time. This will allow us to choose which data is stored for further analysis, and which data to throw away.

“It’s really important we get this right – there is no recycle bin, so the data we reject is lost forever!”

According to University of Oxford Professor Alfons Weber who is leading the project from the UK side, the STFC’s multimillion-pound investment has made the UK the biggest contributor to the experiment outside the US.

“DUNE will be an exciting experiment and it is fantastic to see how the UK is supporting fundamental science,” he said.

“We have a significant task ahead of us in the coming years and we are looking forward to delivering our contributions.”

The 13 UK institutions involved in DUNE include Birmingham; Bristol; Cambridge; Edinburgh; Imperial College London; Lancaster; Liverpool; Manchester; Oxford; Sheffield; Sussex; UCL; and Warwick.