The Neutrino and the Whale

photo: Brain Skerry

photo: Brain Skerry

A nicely written article in the Dec. 3 2009 issue  Nature reveals how a how a neutrino detection experiment conducted in the Mediterranean Sea by nuclear physicists actually uncovered an abundance of sperm whales.

The experiment involved placing hydrophones down 2000 meters below the surface; the idea being that these hydrophones could detect little pops from neutrinos – sub-atomic particles zipping in from deep space.

Marine Biologists Giovanni Pavan was brought in to help filter out the background noise. What they found though was a proliferation of biological sounds, and a surprising high density of Sperm Whale vocalizations – which ended up shifting the focus of the study to monitoring populations of sperm whales.

The article mentions that the Nuclear Physicists somehow thought that the deep ocean would be a “quiet test chamber” for their studies. I find it telling that some of the smartest guys in the room (nuclear physicists) would be so siloed in their field that they would lose track of the fact that the ocean is teaming with ‘biologicals.’

This speaks volumes about our education model that focuses on specialization. It makes me worry about what I am missing when I scan the field I inhabit. But this tale also helps me cultivate more patience for those folks who “can not seem to grasp” the importance of our mission of preserving the ocean’s bio-acoustic sanctity.

This little sound sample is of the “carpenter fish” – an old mariner’s name for sperm whales, representative of what the scientists heard.