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International researchers make a home in the north woods
By Stephanie Hemphill
Minnesota Public Radio
July 26, 2002

Half a mile below the surface of the earth, in an old iron ore mine, an international team of researchers is building a lab to try to answer one question. Do the subatomic particles called neutrinos have mass? The answer could help physicists understand how stars and galaxies are formed. This and other high-energy physics experiments bring scientists from all around the world to the tiny town of Soudan. They come from Europe, Russia, China, and Britain. They spend a few days or a few weeks here every year. They leave their homes and families to pursue their research. For most of them, life in Minnesota's northwoods, or beneath them, is nothing like home.

Liz Buckley-Geer
Liz Buckley-Geer designs the computer systems for the MINOS project. She's from England, lives in Chicago, and was happy to find a quilt shop in nearby Tower.
(MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill)

Every morning at 7:30 at the Tower Soudan Mine, physicists from Greece and Russia crowd into an elevator, along with graduate students from England and France. They call it the cage. Eighty years ago, this same rackety elevator carried miners down into the Soudan mine, and brought iron ore up.

A half-mile down, the scientists enter a series of caverns, where they spend 10 or 12 hours every day, probing the mysteries of the universe.

In one of the caverns, workers are building a giant sandwich of steel plates and fiber optic cable. When it's finished, this huge gadget will track neutrinos beamed through the earth's crust from the Fermi National Laboratory near Chicago. The scientists want to know if the neutrinos change as they travel through the earth.

In other rooms, scientists work on computers and consult with colleagues.

They don't spend much time canoeing or fishing or swimming, like most people who come to the north woods.

Louis Barrett
Louis Barrett is from Bellingham, Wash. He provided wine guides to some area restaurants to help them expand their offerings.

(MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill)

And, truth be known, some of them are quite happy about that. Liz Buckley-Geer is not excited about the north woods. She comes from Wolverhampton, in central England. Now she works at the Fermi Lab near Chicago. She visits Soudan a few times each year to help design the computer systems.

"There's lots of lakes and trees. And mosquitoes," she muses. "It's very quiet, I guess."

Buckley-Geer says she's a city girl and she wouldn't want to live in the quiet country.

"It's fun to come up occasionally. I get to see how the detector's getting on. I just don't think I could live here long term, because I like to shop," she says with a sheepish laugh.

Buckley-Geer did find a way to indulge a favorite form of shopping in the nearby town of Tower. The town is only three blocks long, but there's a quilting shop with plenty of fabrics. Buckley-Geer says at first she was surprised to find such a well-stocked store in this tiny town.

Doug and Micky Petersen
Doug Petersen helped build one of the caverns for the MINOS project. His wife Micky says the experiments might put Tower on the map.
(MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill)

"When I thought about it, I realized it's cold in the winter," she says. "You've got to do something, so that made more sense."

Buckley-Geer's fellow Brit, Leo Jenner, is from University College London. He misses his mates back in England. They used to meet every night at a pub.

"I miss British beer as well, because I don't really like American beer, I'm afraid," Jenner admits. "And I live in London so there's clubs and cinemas and theatres and all sorts of things you can do. It's a little bit quiet in Tower," he says with a touch of understatement.

Jenner does enjoy exploring the country roads and hiking trails around Tower and Soudan.

"Except for the ticks," he adds. "I don't like the ticks over here. You don't get any in the UK. I think they're horrible little beasts."

But another thing you don't get in the UK is the northern lights. Jenner is an astronomy buff, but he'd never seen them until he came to northern Minnesota.

Soudan Mine visitors
Visitors to the Soudan Mine State Park leave the "cage," the elevator that has been used since the 1920s to ransport miners, ore, and now physicists.
(MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill)

He was driving back from Virginia one night when he saw them. "We just stopped the car and got out and had a look. So that was quite a treat."

Of course there are plenty of American scientists here, too. Louie Barrett is from Western Washington University in Bellingham. He's been coming here every summer for 20 years to work on the experiments. One of his hobbies is eating, and he's tried all the restaurants in the region. He says he's doing what he can to encourage fine dining.

"We even bought wine guides for two of the restaurants once, years ago, to improve their quality of the wines," he remembers. "And I think it worked!"

Barrett says everyone puts in long hours in the labs, but the work is rewarding and his colleagues are fun. He also enjoys working with the locals. They're building the 6,000-ton neutrino detector. Barrett says they're the best workers he's ever seen.

"They lay the steel plates, 12,000 pounds, weld them together. Put the active element, the scintillator, on the back, weld it down. Lift them up. And it just goes like clockwork. We're ahead of schedule and under budget and this never happens."

Barrett says the scientists are delighted the work is going so well, because they feel they're in a race with a couple of similar projects in other parts of the world.


Some of those efficient workers stop in at the D'Erick's bar. The bar holds down one end of Tower's three-block downtown.

Micky Petersen is a school cook. She recently met some of the scientists at a Fourth of July party, and they shared their excitement about what's going on in down the old mine.

"What they're doing is very very interesting," she says. "The Soudan mine is going to be put on the map, and everyone in the world is going to know about Soudan Minnesota," she remembers.

Micky Petersen says she's looking forward to visiting the lab. Her husband, Doug Petersen, helped build one of the caverns for the experiments. He seems to take a quiet, proprietary pride in the work at the lab.

"Well it's a little bit technological," he begins. "But I've had some people tell me that they're trying to discover how the universe began, and it could be revolutionary for other applications in life besides just theory. I hope they find out what happened to the dinosaurs."

Petersen says the scientists seem to like Americans, and they seem enjoy their time in the north woods, even if it is kind of quiet.

"One of the physicists told me that he'd been in New York, and he said he thought Soudan was more festive and more fun on the Fourth of July than places like New York."

The subatomic neutrinos these scientists are intently studying sail through space and matter. Neutrinos hardly ever interact with the things they pass through. Here in Soudan, at least the scientists are interacting with the local people, and the energy is good.

More from MPR
  • Mainstreet special broadcast from the Soudan Mine (7/26/02)