In their critical description of the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, Sasha Engelmann and Jol Thomson guide us into the depths of Antarctica’s ancient ice where ghost-like neutrinos cast electromagnetic showers, or cascades, as they chance to interact with the Earth. In this way, neutrinos challenge notions of scale and boundedness in the physical sciences and the technosphere.
SASHA: The neutrino is omnipresent. It is a phantom. It oscillates, that is, unlike other particles it changes as it travels. It is often called the “ideal cosmic messenger.” Trillions of neutrinos are passing through our bodies and through this text at this very moment ‒ an invisible rain.
SASHA: Due to these qualities, neutrinos often evade determination, experiment, observation, measurement, and manipulation ‒ they are the radically imperceptible.
SASHA: But how does it do this?
SASHA: What do we mean by “spectacular” forms of sensing? There are many ways to sense neutrino-traces. And there are many kinds of neutrinos. There are atmospheric neutrinos (those produced from the interaction of cosmic rays in our atmosphere), and geo-neutrinos (those produced from Earth’s core). But let’s focus on extragalactic neutrinos: those very high-energy neutrinos that are emitted from black holes, active galactic nuclei, and supernovae far outside our galaxy. These neutrinos travel vast distances, through interstellar space.
SASHA: Detecting these high-energy “cosmic messengers” also requires what sounds like science fiction: the cooperation of a cubic kilometer of ancient Antarctic ice.
SASHA: One of the youngest and most prolific “neutrino telescopes,” and that which has been the subject of our ethnographic fieldwork – the IceCube Neutrino Observatory – . . .
SASHA: The IceCube physically comprises eighty-six strings hexagonally latticed, instrumented into one-cubic kilometer of Antarctica’s snow-ice. Each string has sixty sensors, or “Digital Optical Modules” (DOMs) which are sensitive to Cherenkov radiation (more on that below). The IceCube uses 5,160 DOMs in total, to sense neutrinos across a 25 order of magnitude energy spectrum. You can think about it as a massive molecular crystal with threaded beads extending kilometers deep into solid ice ‒ with a tiny research station (the "IceTop") perched on top, like a frozen spider.
SASHA: When a high-energy neutrino flying through space passes through the Earth and interacts with a molecule of this Antarctic ice, the resulting blue Cherenkov radiation is sensed by the IceCube’s DOMs. Cherenkov radiation is an ultraviolet evidence of particles traveling faster than the speed of light in the ice-medium ‒ they are superluminal. The DOMs analyze, amplify, and digitize the information to send to the IceTop, and via satellite to hundreds of scientists around the world. The neutrino intra-acts with all of the entangled agencies implicated in the IceCube, with the technosphere itself, with our writing this text, with the magazine you are reading, with the website hosting it. In many ways, you are reading this because a neutrino arrived on Earth four years ago, and its name was Bert
SASHA: In fact, the same researchers at the Deutsche Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY) laboratory in Zeuthen, who designed and constructed the IceCube’s sensors, are building the CTA or Cherenkov Gamma Ray Telescopes in Spain and Chile, which will sense these superluminal blues in our own atmosphere, where particles exceed the speed of light in the medium of air
SASHA: In dialogue with the technosphere, we have one further question: If an Antarctic ice shelf is actually the “detector” for this cosmic messaging, can we still speak of boundaries or “spheres” of the human, the bio-geo-physical, and the technical?
SASHA: When a cascade unfurls, it is felt as a pulse in the technosphere. The data is almost-instantly transmitted to processing centers in Wisconsin, through arrays of satellites and algorithmic sorting. Servers are alerted. PhD students awake. Francis Halzen’s telephone rings. Theories are born. Rumors circulate. Another point is added to the neutrino “sky.”
SASHA: To be sure, a neutrino cascade is an unusual event. But it is one we can use to think more about scale and agency.
SASHA: In the literature developing the Technosphere concept, relations between humans, nonhumans, and the technosphere are often articulated in “small-scale” and “large-scale” components. Scale, categories, and spheres are useful analytical tools. However, they cannot be the only tools we use, especially when faced with such superluminal visions. Indeed, what might be lost in the gesture of defining the relations between humans, nonhumans, and technical infrastructures using categories like large and small?
SASHA: This brings us to our next provocation.
JOL: According to Dr Francis Halzen and numerous other neutrino physicists, the strange qualities of neutrinos provide experimental evidence that the Standard Model ‒ the “Rule Book” of Physics ‒ is flawed. A new, “exotic” model, therefore, is glimpsed in neutrino astronomy and physics.
JOL: The capacity for a particle to change mass in mid-flight is another indication of limits being transcended.
JOL: A new or “exotic” model of particle physics is sought-after by many physicists for many reasons. Some of these reasons may be born from the adventure of discovery; others from a desire to witness a more elegant “theory of everything”; yet others for the more pragmatic reasons of funding and institutional support; and still others to reclaim territory from the unknown.
JOL: This is the technosphere lured outside itself; lured outside its own imposed limits, infrastructures, equations, knowledge systems, discourses, and devices. And it is lured toward new horizons of energy, description, and matter. It is apprehending a Great Outdoors
SASHA: Thinking with neutrinos, we have set out some implications for understanding the technosphere. We proceed with the physicist-philosopher Karen Barad.
Neutrinos lure the technosphere outside itself.
“The entity in question may be small, but its consequences may be quite profound.
Neutrinos invite us to think the technosphere otherwise, in terms that do not rely on scalar analysis. We need trans-scalar concepts (e.g. cascades) to approach the agential and technical capacities of our planet.
“Events and things do not occupy particular positions in space and time; rather, space, time, and matter are iteratively produced and performed [. . .]. The very nature and possibilities of change are reworked.
Limits are situated constructions. They can be better understood as greater or lesser degrees of resistance.
“Boundary transgressions should be equated not with the dissolution of traversed boundaries (as some authors have suggested) but with the ongoing reconfiguring of boundaries [. . .] the neutrino, passing through matter as if it were transparent, innocently traversing all borders [. . .] with undiscriminating ease and disregard for obstacles [. . .] the realization of a mobility and reach that know no bounds.
The articulation of limits in the development of the technosphere is a disservice to the concept because it excludes important questions and insights, as well as vast phenomenal realms (e.g. neutrinos and cascades).
“Apparatuses, in Bohr’s sense, are not passive observing instruments. On the contrary, they are productive of (and part of) phenomena [. . .]. But while focusing on the lack of an inherent distinction between the apparatus and the object, Bohr does not directly address the question of where the apparatus “ends.” [. . .] For example, if a computer interface is hooked up to a given instrument, is the computer part of the apparatus? Is the printer attached to the computer part of the apparatus? Is the paper that is fed into the printer? Is the person who feeds the paper? How about the person who reads the marks on the paper? [. . .] What precisely constitutes the limits of the apparatus that gives meaning to certain concepts at the exclusion of others? [. . .] What is needed is an articulation of the notion of apparatuses that acknowledges this complexity.
There is a Great Outdoors.
An ice shelf is a detector and the technosphere is of the world, just as are humans and neutrinos. All of our elements, ghosts, and particles, wrought together, are like so many ice-embedded modules peering into the crystal cosmos, waiting for the message to arrive.