Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Invasion of the Muons!

Not the interiors of the Mayan Temples, the secret chambers of the Egyptian Pyramids, nor the inside of massive Volcanoes can hide from…the Muons!

They sound like a 50’s horror movie villain, but Muons are nothing to be afraid of. If they were, we’d all be long gone. The Earth is hit with muons at a rate of about 1 per square centimeter per minute, but over time that’s lots of muons colliding with your whole body. These may sound familiar if you read my post a few weeks ago about physicist/detective Luis Alvarez who pioneered the muon method and used it on Egyptian Pyramids.

As reported by Science News this week (http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20071208/bob8.asp), researchers are looking inside the Mayan temples and some massive volcanoes (among other things) using new muon detectors. Most notably, the new detectors don’t need to be underneath the large objects (unlike Alvarez’ original method) but can be put on the perimeter of these large objects, and detect muons coming nearly horizontally through them. Radar and seismic detection methods to see into these objects have failed for various reasons, but Mother Nature has provided a perfect solution.

Muons are remnants of cosmic rays of particles from the distant, and not so distant, reaches of space. When these rays hit the Earth’s protective atmosphere, they usually turn into pions, which interact with air and quickly decay into Muons.

When a stream of muons passes through, say, the Mayan Temple, some of them collide with layers of stone. Therefore, if you measure the number of muons that comes out on the other side, it will be significantly fewer than the number that went in. But if there is a gap in the building, like a room, the muons will pass more easily through there, and more of them will be detected on the other side. This technique can not only reveal otherwise unobtainable information (like structures in the hot depths of volcanoes) or extremely sensitive information (like the delicate interiors of rooms in a Mayan temple). A computer scan compiled over a few months will be able to see, to within a meter, the interior structure of the building or volcano like an X-ray shows your bone structure.

Image Credits: http://www.britannica.com/eb/art-15738/Mayan-Temple-of-the-Inscriptions-at-Palenque-Mexico-300-BC


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