Gold to Neutrinos
Aug 17, 2007
|We spent parts of two days in Lead
, a town that doesn't have a straight or level street in it. That's because it's built entirely on hills, the few that weren't wiped out by the town's single industry - the Homestake Gold Mine.
The Homestake closed a few years ago, but while it was open it was the longest operating gold mine in the world. At 8,100 feet it was also one of the deepest, and richest
. When it closed real estate values in town plummeted. Houses were selling for as little as $200 and some people just walked away and left them
But now there's hope again. For several years the town has been courting the scientific community, and recently it was announced that a deep underground laboratory will be built in the mine to study (among other things) neutrinos. This is a huge deal for the local economy because it will create jobs and income reopening the mine again, a major undertaking as the ground water has risen to the 5,000 foot level again, and all the equipment that formerly pumped it has been removed!
The town is dominated by a feature they casually refer to as 'the open cut'
, a monster hole in the ground that is over half a mile across and some 1,200 feet deep! It's so deep that from the viewing deck of the adjacent Visitor Center you can't even see the bottom
, and so wide that you have to take three pictures across to get it all in.
But when you see a scaled profile of the whole mining operation the open cut appears as a little hollow on the surface, and the shafts and tunnels of the mining operation go nearly seven times deeper and a mile or more out in every direction. Miners lived in homes that were a mile above sea level, but when they went to work they were digging and blasting more than a half a mile below sea level!
I talked to one ex-miner who worked at the 6,300 foot level and he told me, "If there's a 'hell' it's got to be a better place than that!" At 6,300 feet the rock walls are 104 degrees. The ambient temperature and relative humidity are both in the high 90's. You can only imagine how much worse it is 1,800 feet lower. And yet that is where the gold is, and that is the ideal place to study neutinos.
The company didn't close because they ran out of gold, they closed because at that depth it was costing over $400 to produce an ounce of gold worth only $200+ on the falling world market. When they closed they did not anticipate ever opening again, and so removed all their structures and equipmment. But now neurtinos are the gold, and to study them it all has to be put back in place again.
So - what are neutrinos? Well, in the words of a physics illiterate layman they are sub-atomic particles generated by the sun that reach earth but pass right through us. Since they react with practically nothing they are very hard to detect, and even harder to study. The only hope of studying them lies in eliminating as much background activity as possible, which can only be done by going very deep in the earth where nothing else can penetrate. That way when some phenomena occurs, odds are it was caused by a neutrino because that's all that could have penetrated here. Well - you get the idea - I hope.
We took a 'surface tour' that started at the open cut and took us through parts of Lead and then up to the Yates hoist
. Yates hoist sits over one of the mine shafts that goes down to the 4.800 foot level. If you want to go deeper you have to then go to another shaft and use another underground hoist. The hoist is one of two, the other being Ross hoist which is older
Yates hoist was built in the thirties and is still operating well. It can lower and raise 12,000 pounds of men and material, and the cable spool is so large that it can handle all the cable on a single wrap
. This means that cable is never wrapped over cable, eliminating damage and fouling, and probably contributing to it's long life.
on the second day we went from there to it's sister city Deadwood
, and what a disappointment that was. The Deadwood I remember from fifty years ago was a rip roaring town that capitalized on it's rich history - the murder of Wild Bill, the whoring around of Calamity Jane, and the fact that prostitution was still legal and there were more bars than churches. But when the Homestake closed Deadwood died too.
Recently it found it's 'salvation' in legalized gambling
- and now the town is a touristy mess
. Now there are more casinos than churches, in fact some of the churches may be casinos. If you want to find out about Wild Bill, or Calamity Jane, or Poker Alice, or Deadwood Dick, or Potato Creek Johnny, you have to go to the Adams Museum, which is excellent, but not like the old days.
We had a mediocre buffalo burger at the least smoke filled restaurant, and couldn't wait to get out of town.