Sometimes it might be easy to think that all Japanese science and technology is all poop motorcycles and brain-powered cat ears. Sometimes, all we hear about out of Japan are the wacky, off-the-wall inventions and inventors. But in fact, Japan is a well-respected member of the scientific community that makes serious contributions to many fields.

Case in point, last year the physics world was rocked when scientists reported that they had observed something moving faster than the speed of light, challenging nearly everything we know about how the universe works.

Ever since that finding, physicists have been trying to prove or disprove the results. Japan has tried to contribute to this effort but one of the many unfortunate effects of the enormous 3/11 earthquake temporarily shut down many of Japan’s sensitive scientific instruments.

But in March, these powerful machines will come back online and help scientists solve these mysteries. What do they do? How do they work?


While Super-K sounds like a breakfast cereal, it’s actually short for Super-Kamiokande, and it’s one of Japan’s most important science facilities. It sits half a mile underground deep under a mine in Gifu prefecture.

Super Saiyan or neutrino observatory?

Over the years, it’s gone by tons of different names. Every time the facility’s been upgraded, they’ve changed names. Originally it was called the KamiokaNDE, then the KamiokaNDE II, Super-Kamiokande, Super-Kamiokande II, and finally the Super-Kamiokande III. Reading through the names, they sound more like different power levels in Dragonball Z than a scientific facility.

Names aside, Super-Kmart is actually one of the world’s most powerful neutrino observatories, and could be key in solving the most important physics question in recent years.


Neutrinos are mysterious sub-atomic particles that can travel through most things completely undetected. They regularly fly through the earth unnoticed by anybody.

Because these little guys are so wily, it’s pretty difficult to tell if they’re there at all. That’s what neutrino observatories like Super-K are around for.

The main part of Super-K is a giant container filled with an extremely pure water. Within that container, there are thousands of detectors that measure when neutrinos pass through and interact with the water. It’s an amazing, National-Geographic-center-spread sight to behold.

Confusing? A little bit. Cool? Yes, and in the geekiest way.

So why does anybody care about these tiny particles? Turns out they’re super important in scientific research. When stars die, they release a ton of these little guys, not to mention the fact that neutrinos travel through anything is really interesting and useful to physicists.

Oh, and they might travel faster than the speed of light.

Faster Than Light

And that’s where this all comes full circle. When Super-K comes back online, it will help the scientific community confirm whether or not neutrinos can actually travel faster than the speed of light.

The plan right now is to use a Japanese particle accelerator (J-PARC) to shoot neutrinos at Super-K and see if they can replicate the results of European scientists. And maybe, just maybe, Japan might help unravel one of the most important scientific discoveries in our lifetimes.

Or instead of performing all of these extremely complicated experiments, maybe there’s a simpler answer…

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[via Japan Times]

  • larisa

    That History channel guy is a maniac, and not the good kind like Doc from Back to the Future (regardless of matching hairstyles). 

  • JRT

    Nice to see some science ’round these parts!

    We are so close to unlocking some of the mysteries of the universe with research like this. It’s a shame that a lot of people either are oblivious or just don’t care.

  • Joc

    I’ve been obsessed with Japan’s super-K ever since stumbling upon Andrea Gursky’s photograph of it:

    Thanks for the post on it! Really wish I could visit it… dang should have studied Physics harder..

  • Hashi

    Yeah, he’s a little…off. But he’s a great meme!

  • Hashi

    Glad you enjoyed the post!

  • Hashi

    Yeah, pictures of Super-K are quite incredible. Glad you liked the post!

  • Jheri

    Aww, Giorgio Tsoukalos is cool! Sometimes I think people are too quick to subscribe to, or dismiss, his ideas without really researching them — so he gets a bad rep. I think it’s pretty cool that he talks about his ideas without fear of criticism. 

  • Ginnydarcy

    And this is how science contributes to the advancement of the human race and it looks good too. I have always thought Japanese scientists do well in providing some of the most serious and creative experiements but man to know that there is possibly something faster than the speed of light……..Amazing I am very impressed and thank you for the scientific update i like it.

  • Kiriain

    Maybe, one day, scientists can figure out a way to make human bodies turn into neutrinos to pass through objects and move really fast; then change back into us! It’d make teleportation possible! Aw yeah!

  • Katrina

    “We don’t allow superluminal neutrinos in the bar” says the bartender. A neutrino walks into a bar.