31 March 2012
Posted by Bryan Donaldson
Today these remain the primary mediums for communicating information. A network of fiber optics and radio links overlays the entire earth, distributing instant voice and data to billions of people. This month a new type of communication was successfully tested, and it has the potential to be as transformative as anything seen in the last 175 years.
On 14 Mar 2012, Fermilab (an Illinois based research facility) announced that they successfully coded a message into a stream of neutrinos, and it was decoded one kilometer away. The message sent read "NEUTRINO" in a basic binary language consisting of pulses of neutrinos with simple "on" and "off" states representing ones and zeros. They achieved a rate of 0.1 bits per second (two hours to send the NEUTRINO message), whereas current optics can easily carry 1.6 Terrabits per second. They achieved an error rate of 1%, whereas current optics have an error rate a million times smaller. The transmitter and receiver are both huge and expensive pieces of advanced machinery. The receiver weighs 170 tons. Clearly this technology has a long way to go.
What is amazing about the test is that neutrinos are sub-atomic particles with no electrical charge. That means they fly right through atoms without touching them. It's as if a planet were to shoot right through our solar system without being affected by gravity, just passing right on through without hitting anything. That's how neutrinos work with the matter we are familiar with. The Sun is constantly spewing out neutrinos that pass right through the earth and our bodies, so harnessing them means that we could use beams of neutrinos to talk directly from Chicago to Beijing with no interference from the big planet in between the cities. Submarines, notoriously difficult to talk to, would never be out of range. A base on the moon with a neutrino link could talk to any point on earth without satellites. Even better, a neutrino phone could be used to communicate with aliens from another star system. After all, if neutrino communication could be harnessed and perfected, wouldn't that be what aliens are using? Not the awkward electromagnetic spectrum that SETI has been bothering with.
Of course, all this is speculation and depends on improving the method. Massive hurdles still exist, the main one being that neutrinos' ability to pass through anything makes them incredibly difficult to detect. But as a proof of concept, the test was incredibly successful over the short distance. The first telephone call only went about 10 meters and was quickly improved upon. Now, I hold a tiny device in my hand that can call anyone in the world; it has a built-in gyroscope, compass, GPS receiver, two video cameras, several antennas, and enough storage for 48 hours of video. All that would have seemed verging on impossible when I was born. It's easy to imagine a world where neutrino receivers become smaller, faster, cheaper, and better. If the potential in neutrino communication lives up to expectations, maybe "What hath God wrought?" would have been a more fitting message for the test run.