Decaying laboratory

A LABORATORY set up by the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research deep in the Kolar gold field mines to study proton decay may be wound up because poor gold yields have forced closure of the mines.

Since the past 12 years, scientists in the lab located 2.3 km below the surface of the earth have been trying to discover whether protons, found in the nuclei of atoms, decay. Until the 1970s, protons were thought to be immortal, and confirmation of its decay would mean all matter would some day become nothing.

The underground location of the lab prevents interference by cosmic rays that continuously shower the earth. But mining activity at Kolar is expected to end in March, after which TIFR will have to bear the maintenance cost of Rs 10 crore annually, or close the lab. The scientists, who have received funds of Rs 1 crore for their experiments so far, are already dismantling equipment.

Proton-decay detectors have been set up in Italy, Japan and the United States. In the 1980s, scientists at Kolar and in Italy found candidate proton-decay signals, but there is still no conclusive proof of the particle's disintegration. The Kolar lab is also ideal for monitoring neutrinos -- almost massless, subatomic particles whose precise mass could indicate whether the expanding universe will one day contract. Scientists say other gold mines in the country that are potential proton-decay experiment sites are not as deep as Kolar.

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