back to article DARPA seeks portable muon-making machine to see through almost anything

The United States Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has initiated a program it hopes will create a portable muon generator. Muons are subatomic particles that behave a lot like electrons but are around 200 times heavier. As the US Department of Energy explains, "Muons created in the atmosphere constantly hit …

  1. alain williams Silver badge

    negative 450 degrees Fahrenheit

    Oh come on el-reg ... Fahrenheit in a scientific context is stupid, if you want to give a different scale try Kelvin - much more meaningful when close to absolute zero.

    1. KittenHuffer Silver badge
      Paris Hilton

      Re: negative 450 degrees Fahrenheit

      Yes, you are quite correct. They should have shown it as the -47 Hiltons that it actually is!

    2. steelpillow Silver badge

      Re: negative 450 degrees Fahrenheit

      First time I ever saw anyone use anything other than "minus" for a below-zero temperature value. I agree that 5° K is a lot more informative. (Give 'em a Unicode degree symbol, make the Windows laggards gnash their teeth in confusion)

      1. Paul Mitchell

        Re: negative 450 degrees Fahrenheit


        No degree symbol for Kelvin (or Celcius), that's an olde worlde thing for Farenheit or Centigrade.


        1. steelpillow Silver badge

          Re: negative 450 degrees Fahrenheit

          But it's a lot clearer than reading 5 K as 5,000 degrees!

        2. ian 22

          Re: negative 450 degrees Fahrenheit

          "Centigrade"? You must mean "Celsius" /pedant

      2. Dave 126 Silver badge

        Re: negative 450 degrees Fahrenheit

        > Give 'em a Unicode degree symbol, make the Windows laggards gnash their teeth in confusion

        Eh? It's Alt-168 on any Windows application I've ever used... Is it simplier on non-Windows desktop OSs?

        1. alain williams Silver badge

          Re: negative 450 degrees Fahrenheit

          ℃ is U+2103 "DEGREE CELSIUS = degrees Centigrade"

          ℉ is U+2109 "DEGREE FARENHEIT"

          K is U+212A "KELVIN SIGN". Kelvin is never referred to nor written as a degree

          1. steelpillow Silver badge

            Re: negative 450 degrees Fahrenheit

            "Kelvin is never referred to nor written as a degree" is false. It never /ought/ to be if you are using it as an SI unit, but everybody does because:

            a) it was what we were all supposed to say until 1967 anyway, (see for example ) and I was set in my ways by then, and

            b) It makes more sense that blotting up some dubious pedantic brainfart just because a bureaucrat put it on a piece of paper.

            1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

              "Kelvin is never referred to nor written as a degree"

              <Zaphod mode>

              It's not a degre, man. It just is

              </Zaphod mode>

              BTW IIR Darpa did succeed with something simlar to produce neutron (or X-rays?) with static electricity on a tape to produce another through-the-wall sensor.

              Incidently Muons are a key component of "Muon catalysed cold fusion." So called because it has been demonstrated IIRC at liquid Nitrogen temperatures.

              Yes, MCCF is a real thing. It has been repeatably demonstrated. But no one has ever focussed on creating an optimised Muon generation system. Since the raw component generation efficiency is so poor the overall system efficiency is abysmal. OTOH if that were to change......

        2. steelpillow Silver badge

          Re: t's Alt-168 on any Windows application I've ever used...

          There are still a great many users of good ol' Internet Explorer (i.e. my putative "Windows laggards") out there. Most have no idea what the Alt key is for.

    3. Spoobistle

      Re: negative 450 degrees Fahrenheit

      It's to make sure the muons don't set their books on fire...

    4. Bill Gray

      Re: negative 450 degrees Fahrenheit

      Dunno how "global" this is, but in the US, we have time/temperature signs, usually on banks, cycling between displaying time, temp in degrees F, and temp in degrees C. I've always wanted to hack one to also show the temp in "degrees" K. If I ever do so, I'll try to remember to leave out the degree symbol.

      (Though truthfully, I'd prefer the now-obsolete use of Absolute and Centigrade. I appreciate the desire to honor Kelvin and Celsius, but there's something to be said for designations that actually tell you what's being discussed.)

      1. Sorry that handle is already taken. Silver badge

        Re: negative 450 degrees Fahrenheit

        Sure but if you say "Absolute", how do I know you mean Kelvin and not Rankine?

    5. Dimmer Bronze badge

      Re: negative 450 degrees Fahrenheit

      Can we call the “Eye of Sauron” ?

  2. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Meanwhile, in A.N.Other Area of Incredibly Researched AIdVenturing, ...

    ....... a Fundamental Essential Proves Itself Virtually Worthy and Absolutely Vital for Human Survival.

    That's how to do IT and AI. Nice one, DARPA .... Create an inventive imaginative narrative for constant and secure undisclosed secret international security funding streams to feed fiat to universal supporters to lavishly spend on toys and trinkets which allow the returned funds to be again disbursed and employed in feeding other dreams and more popular virtual realities ...... those daily media presentations chronicling and depicting with moveable pixels the general knowledge states of conflicting co-existences, and in any ground-breaking, Earth-shattering future news, tales with evidence produced of fantastic progress made/discovered/uncovered.

    Without the interminable flow of flash fiat cash, and its turning into a wholly virtually supplied and debited ethereal product is a master pilot stroke of pure pragmatic genius, does unbelievably productive progress crash to an almighty halt and in so doing does it, IT and AI guarantee the advent and rise of, from the depths of the resultant despair, a endless string of catastrophic mass extinction threatening events and the end to life as you both may know it and/or would just love it to be.

  3. druck Silver badge


    While muons are created in the atmosphere constantly, how safe would it to be inside a building being scanned by a directed beam of these things whizzing about at 10GeV or more?

    1. that one in the corner Silver badge

      Re: Safety

      One brief websearch later: *

      Average energy at ground level 4GeV. Overall, muons have minimal energy loss due to ionisation (which is where the safety aspects come in), the use of 10GeV is for extended lifetimes giving more time to penetrate materials, rather than using higher energies to bash their way in. 10GeV lasting for approx 63 km in the air.

      If you happen to see a faint beam of Cherenkov light flashes coming at you, DARPA is watching you.

      * other URLs on the subject are available

      1. ian 22

        Re: Safety

        I'm a bit concerned by the petawatt laser requirement.

        1. that one in the corner Silver badge

          Re: Safety

          That is why the operators are kept safely out of the way of the beam, on a balcony without a railing. They have appropriate PPE (shiny black helmets with a very pointy peak), heavy gloves and big levers to pull.

          Just so long as they remember to take the castors off the chairs...

    2. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: Safety

      I only want to be exposed to natural muons, man-made muons are bad!

      1. Gene Cash Silver badge

        Re: Safety

        Only the most organic muons for me!

        1. DS999 Silver badge

          Re: Safety

          but are they also gluon free?

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Safety

        Containment rings are cruel. Insist on free range muons!

  4. Jonathon Green

    Maybe they should just interpret the title of the article literally.

    Instead of developing a portable muon making machine they could just develop a machine which makes portable muons. That way you can stick with Fermilab/CERN sized facilities and just send boxes of muons through the post to wherever they’re needed, or maybe order them through Amazon or do the drop shipping thing through AliExpress … :-)

    1. JTatts

      The muon lifetime of 2 microseconds means that next day delivery doesn't quite cut it....

      1. Jonathon Green

        Well there you are then Your portable muon would be something which you could send by Parcelforce and have it arrive in usable condition. Although given their “We can damage an anvil or misplace an elephant” mission statement that might be a big ask…

  5. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    "DARPA is on the lookout for folks with experience providing Petawatt-level laser facilities, muon target design, and HPC systems to run simulations, among other esoteric skills."

    And the best they can offer such rare birds is a 2 year gig with a possible 2 year extension?

    Given the nature of post-doc employment this will actually look good.

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Read up on how DARPA works. It employs Program Managers for no more than five years. These Program Managers then seek and fund Performers (which are typically universities or companies) and contracts with them to persue an area of research with the aim of a usable technology.

      The actual individuals doing the research usually remain employed by their original organisation.

      Try the podcast 'Voices from DARPA' if you're interested.

    2. Death Boffin

      Short gigs

      DARPA is mostly run in that fashion. Most of the program managers are on sabbaticals from universities or industry, or on tours from the military or other parts of the DoD. There are a few political appointees at the top. The institutional memory seems to reside in the SETA (System Engineering and Technical Advisors) contractors.

  6. Sixtiesplastictrektableware


    This endeavour really strikes me as the foundational concepts that make a tri-corder.

    It'd be funny if as they were building a tri-corder, they accidentally created hard light and the phaser and then made a tri-corder.

    Kind of James Burke-ing the Trek universe.

  7. kars1997

    Muon-catalyzed fusion?

    Never mind scanning buildings - could they make it efficient enough to make muon-catalyzed fusion a reality?

    1. bazza Silver badge

      Re: Muon-catalyzed fusion?

      So far as I know, still being worked on at the Rutherford Appleton Lab in the UK, in conjunction with the Japanese, on the ISIS spallation neutron source (muons a by product).

      ISIS is leading the way in portability, probably is the smallest mass producer of muons and is therefore the most portable machine there is at the moment.

      I think DARPA are missing a trick. Instead of having a portable muon generator, they could equally well research building techniques to build an ISIS copy rapidly, anywhere.

  8. Francis King

    Or cold fusion

    If they can make muons at will, then muonic catalysis is just around the corner.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Or cold fusion


      That's my cat. He never seems to do anything but lots of things seem to happen around him while he looks on with innocent eyes.

  9. ThatOne Silver badge

    Excuse me?

    > mapping the location of underground tunnels and chambers hundreds of meters below the Earth's surface

    Since DARPA is the original mad scientist lair, I'm assuming this was either lost in translation or added by some ignorant PR mouthpiece.

    Muon radiography works just like X-ray radiography: You put the light source on one side, and the detector on the other side of the object to be scanned. Meaning you can scan the pyramids since they stick out of the ground, but to scan the ground beneath your feet for tunnels, you'd need to bury either the muon source or the detector even deeper beneath those tunnels. Chances are your excavators will detect the tunnels before the muons will...

    1. Oglethorpe Bronze badge

      Re: Excuse me?

      You could dig a handful of holes, drop the source into each and scan a large area. You could also do the reverse (detector in the hole, source moved around) to double your pleasure per-hole (by pleasure, I mean scan planes).

      1. ThatOne Silver badge

        Re: Excuse me?

        > You could dig a handful of holes

        Not enough: Remember, you need to place the light source and the detector on opposite sides of the object to image, so the rays which go from the first to the second pass through the target object.

        Which means that if you want to "detect" a tunnel running 10 meters under your feet, you'll need to dig two 10 m deep holes, one on each side of that tunnel, which requires you to already have a pretty good idea of its position and depth.

        Or of course dig dozens of random holes, and then try random pairs of them in hope there is something interesting between them, something which might take weeks and still let you miss the actual tunnel, just because you closest hole pair was off by a couple degrees.

  10. Havin_it


    "Several decades and billions in funding rounds have _still_ have not yielded our most prised goal of a pair of X-ray specs that can give us a good look under the interns' tops. C'mon nerds, up your game!"

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Translation:

      That shouldn't be too hard. Remember the camcorder night vision mode that would do that? How hard should it be to re-build GoogleGlass so the camera is in night vision mode and feeding direct to the display?

    2. ian 22

      Re: Translation:

      Nor our flying cars. We were promised those!

  11. WolfFan Silver badge


    Many years ago I played Traveller a lot, and my fav weapon was the meson gun… There’s nothing like kicking a lot of muons at an enemy ship, have them pass right through armour, shields, whatever, and decay in a blast of gammas…

    1. swm

      Re: Hmmm

      There’s nothing like kicking a lot of muons at an enemy ship, have them pass right through armour, shields, whatever, and decay in a blast of gammas…

      muons decay into electrons and neutrinos.

      1. Sorry that handle is already taken. Silver badge

        Re: Hmmm

        That's alright. The Meson Gun generates mesons, not muons.

  12. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Registered and Restricted Alien Territory

    Has anyone else noticed that the more comments there are shared on the El Reg subject matter published here [Thanks for that, Simon Sharwood, APAC Editor].... DARPA seeks portable muon-making machine to see through almost anything ..... the more it moves everything into A.N.Other Area of Incredibly Researched AIdVenturing, whether you like it, or want it to, or not?

    Do you think that is your choice? Or has it been made for you to imagine and accept as your own?

  13. Eclectic Man Silver badge

    Meanwhile, here in the UK

    One of the current presidential, sorry 'Leader of the Conservative party & therefore Prime Minister' candidates has suggested that unused retail premises could be used for health services such as MRI scans.

    Now, I've been in a Magnetic Resonance Imaging scanner*, and not only are they BIG and HEAVY, they do seem to require a fair amount of electricity, and you must never get anything remotely magnetic near them when switched on Ashley have a habit of picking up small items like steel oxygen cylinders and killing the patient by ramming them through the centre of the electro-magnet.

    Not saying it is impossible to put an MRI scanner into an empty High Street shop, just that there might need to be some serious structural modification required. (El Reg boffins, how close can you have a structural step girder or RSJ to an MRI scanner when it is turned on?)

    A portable muon source might be quite useful, I suppose.

    *Had my head examined. Seems it IS on the right way round, after all.

    1. Eclectic Man Silver badge

      Re: Meanwhile, here in the UK


      For "Ashley" read "as they".

      And "Structural step girder" |-> "structural steel girder".

    2. EvilDrSmith Silver badge

      Re: Meanwhile, here in the UK

      They stick MRI scanners in trailers, which appear to include a fairly robust lump of steel for the chassis/trailer frame, so as long as the shop has a decent strength floor slab (and you can actually get through the access doors without too much demolition), it would seem to be do-able.

    3. Anonymous Coward

      Re: Meanwhile, here in the UK (SNAFU)

      One really wonders about the state of science or health knowledge across the pond.

      An MRI Scanner is typically installed in US hospitals where it is surrounded by steel (and electronics). The magnetism is confined to the inside of the cylinder. The danger is primarily that it will fry cell phones and smart watches.

      Most technicians would notice if you tried to take in an oxygen cylinder.

    4. Eclectic Man Silver badge

      Re: Meanwhile, here in the UK

      From Siemens (who make MRI scanners in a truck)

      "Please note that Mobile MRI requires you to select a Siemens Healthineers-certified trailer manufacturer. This certified trailer manufacturer will ensure that the MRI is adequately protected during transport, follows the correct operating conditions, and maintains consistent and reliable performance over its lifetime."


      So it is not just your average trailer.

      And for the accidents (gruesome):

  14. Andytug

    Does this mean....

    that sharks with frikkin' lasers on their heads are one step closer to reality?

    And petawatt lasers at that!

    1. Spoobistle

      Re: Does this mean....

      That's not muons, that's Raytheons - they're building a new laser weapon lab in Scotland. By the time the lasers are up to power, climate warming will have brought the Great Whites up to the Firth of Forth, ready for fitting!

  15. that one in the corner Silver badge

    Petawatt lasers - why bother with the muons?

    Don't bother scanning the target and doing all the hard maths to decipher the results of the particle scatter.

    Just use the laser, cut the damn thing in half in look!

  16. ChaosFreak

    Why Worry?

    Why worry? Each of us is wearing an unlicensed nuclear accelerator on his back.

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