The Most Unforgettable Way To Learn About Neutrino Physics

It looks like a scene from some sci-fi epic. But for a week in October, anyone visiting the Manchester Science Festival was able to don a white tyvek suit and paddle through this wormhole of spectacular golden balloons. For science!

It was part of a celebrated installation called Super K Sonic BOOOOum by Nelly Ben Hayoun, a recent graduate from the Royal College of Art in London. And if you think it looks cool, wait until you hear what a visit actually involves:

This large installation consists of a 22 meter long ‘river' of water running through a tunnel lined with thousands of silver balloons (photomultiplier tubes). Members of the public embark on a boat, pulled through the tunnel on a submerged track using a pulley system, with sound and lighting effects, and with an expert particle physicist navigator as a guide. On the journey they learn of neutrinos, their role in the Universe and how scientists detect them. All crew members must first don white Tyvek suits, wellies and hard hats or else face the wrath of Nelly the security chief, at the entrance of the tunnel.

The Most Unforgettable Way To Learn About Neutrino Physics

The golden balloon'd tunnel was the one constructed for the Manchester festival; the slightly earlier silver tunnel was an earlier version. But what's it mean? Well, the tunnel's intended to simulate the action of the Super Kamiokande neutrino observatory in Japan:

Passengers hear loud booms and see bright flashes of blue light – Cherenkov Radiation – that shake and shudder the gold balloons – Photomultiplier Tubes -, replicating the real Super-K interactions between neutrinos and atoms of extremely pure water, the effects of a sonic boom, normally faster than the speed of light.

And as Nelly explained to me:

Super K Sonic Boooum 2 Gold isn't only about the science, it is mainly about giving the audience the opportunity to experience of a sonic boooum- when a particle travels faster than the speed of light!

Right on! Here's a shot of the Super Kamiokande, for reference...It's a little bit bigger than Nelly Ben Hayoun's tunnel.

The Most Unforgettable Way To Learn About Neutrino Physics


Unfortunately the installation's run at the Manchester Science Festival has drawn to a close, but there's always the possibility that the project could be reprised for a future event. Regardless, to the people who did get to learn about neutrino physics by paddling through the Super K Sonic BOOOOum, I've gotta say: Best. Field trip. Ever. [SuperSonik via It's Nice That]

Top photograph Mark Waugh, second Nick Ballon