The Dolomites, the gateway to the universe
Lago Fedaia (Lake Fedaia), Val di Fassa
Mountains are a “gateway to the sky”: we have heard this since ancient times, but we know today that they really are …. much more than we think. Just below Lake Fedaia, on the Trentino side of the Pass, you can see a small hut. It is nothing special at first glance, but what seems like just a semi-abandoned hut is actually what remains of one of the most important laboratories of modern physics, which in the mid-1950s hosted researchers like Blackett, Powell and Fermi.
The laboratory on Passo Fedaia is evidence of the years when the Dolomites were the protagonists of an important chapter of modern physics and they virtually became a real “bridge to the universe”. These mountains, in fact, were home to some important pioneering experiments in the field of particle physics. Nestled amongst these mountain peaks, Italian researchers analysed a fascinating and still mysterious phenomenon: cosmic rays.
But why choose the Dolomites? Cosmic rays are super-energetic particles, mostly protons, charged with an energy equal to 100 million times that of particles produced in modern accelerators. They are generated by the sun, other stars or dramatic energy-emitting phenomena such as crashing galaxies or swirling black holes. Projected into space, they also arrive near the Earth, where they are partially absorbed by the gases in the atmosphere. Therefore, the higher you are, the more cosmic rays you will see and the easier it will be to observe their nature.
The physicist Giuseppe Cocconi noticed this and in 1942-43 he chose as his laboratory the beautiful setting of Passo Sella (2200 m). His research represented an important chapter in the study of cosmic rays and after World War II his work was published in the important journal Physical Review.
Thanks to the research carried out in the Dolomites, today we know that cosmic rays have certain properties: by studying the trajectories of their journey to Earth backwards, it is possible to trace the phenomena that generated them in very distant spaces and times of the universe. Therefore, it is a sort of ‘energy shower’ (scientifically called an ‘air shower’), in which each ‘drop’ contains information about the life of our universe. Every time we climb up to the top of mountains, we can imagine being targets of a shower of messages that the universe is sending us to tell us about itself.
During an excursion to Rifugio Maria on Sass Pordoi (at an altitude of almost 3000 m), for example, air showers will be particularly strong. The mountain hut is an extraordinary podium from where you can feel closer to the secrets of the universe and enjoy the grandiose view of the Dolomites.