Scientist's super-cool bid to answer life's toughest questions
A SCOTTISH scientist is working on a cutting-edge project that could solve one of the greatest mysteries of the universe, help find new deposits of oil, and even track down Osama bin Laden.
Strathclyde University physicist Professor Bob Bingham will use super-cooled atoms in a 1.5m experiment to test some of Einstein's key theories and confirm how the universe was created.
Bingham claims his small-scale experiment could achieve some of the objectives of the giant, 5bn CERN project in Switzerland.
Bingham hit the headlines last week as part of a team which said it could create a plasma shield to protect spacecraft crews from radiation. The scientist said there were similarities between the shield and the one deployed by the USS Enterprise in the television classic Star Trek.
In his latest project, the scientist, who is based at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, will use atoms cooled to -270C – close to absolute zero – to confirm a theory of the Big Bang.
He said: "Lots of science relies on imagination from everyone, whether it is Einstein or science fiction writers. It is up to the scientists to catch up."
Bingham will place the atoms inside a vacuum, where they will form the basis of an atom interferometer, a new instrument that measures minute movements and vibrations.
The measurements are sensitive enough, the team hopes, to confirm a theory of where the energy came from to start the Big Bang.
The initial experiment to prove the theory will cost just 1.5m, a fraction of CERN's 5bn cost. The project will start early next year at the University of Aberdeen, which is building a dedicated laboratory and vacuum chamber for the experiment and for the refinement of the interferometer, which Bingham claims could be a vital tool in other fields.
He said: "For our experiment we need to make the instrument super-sensitive and strip out any background interference, so that will make it more practical. In theory, it could be taken in a plane over the sea and penetrate a beam through the sea and rocks to find caves of oil. It would be 10,000 times more sensitive than current techniques.
"It could also be used by the army in Afghanistan to find tunnels used by Osama bin Laden.
"We will expect results in 10 to 15 years' time. That's a short while in physics."
Aberdeen physicist Dr Charles Wang, who is collaborating on the project, said: "Aberdeen is interested in this because the sensors could find oil in the North Sea and even the Arctic.
"There is also interest in space missions and using them to find out what is at the core of Jupiter."
If the initial experiment is successful, it could be recreated in space, a more perfect vacuum, to prove how the universe began.
But Dr Chris Parkes, a Glasgow scientist working on CERN, denied the Scottish project could compete.
He said: "This is related to fundamental physics and addresses similar questions that are being answered at CERN, but it's not directly the same. A lab experiment does not have the same flexibility and reach as something like CERN."
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