A Journey into Excellence, INFN Gran Sasso National Laboratory. Part I
Our journey to the Gran Sasso Laboratory of the National Institute for Nuclear Physics, which recently celebrated thirty years of activity, starts from Rome on a rainy day.
We drive smoothly along the Rome-L’Aquila motorway in the absence of traffic, only slowed down by road maintenance works.
Between nature and science
As we approach the Laboratory, we grow more and more thrilled with this place situated in the heart of central Italy, where an untamed and majestic nature seems to cooperate secretly with cutting-edge science and technology, the result of human ingenuity.
Before visiting the underground laboratories, the entrance to which is situated along the tunnel underneath the Gran Sasso mountain, we pass by the surface laboratories, where we wait for the shuttle bus that will take us to our destination.
The view of the surrounding snow-capped mountains involuntarily introduces us to the dimension of cold, a constant in our journey. As we, equipped with protective helmets, find out shortly afterwards in the underground laboratories, some of the experiments hosted here are conducted at very low temperatures.
This is the case of CUORE, the experiment that has been launched most recently: a large scientific-technological structure equipped with a cryostat, a sophisticated instrument capable of generating cold by taking the experiment to temperatures close to absolute zero.
At the frontier of knowledge
The objective of CUORE – and of other experiments that we will see during our visit – is to better understand the nature of neutrinos: enigmatic particles that have no electric charge and a very small mass with a still unknown value.
Capturing elusive and rare objects like neutrinos is an extremely difficult task that, however, becomes possible here, underneath 1,400 m of rock – shielded from cosmic rays and environmental radiation, which normally interfere with the observation of these particles.
The specific mission of CUORE is to verify the hypothesis that neutrinos are identical to their own antiparticles, postulated by the famous Italian physicist Ettore Majorana, mysteriously disappeared at the end of the 1930s. This discovery, if verified, could change the way we look at the universe.
Neutrino physics is precisely one of the main lines of research around which the so-called “hunt for new physics” revolves at Gran Sasso, aimed at overcoming the theoretical model currently used to describe physical reality. The discovery of new phenomena in this field could, in fact, open the doors to new explanations of the origin of the universe and the nature of matter.