I love a good mystery, whether it turns out that the butler did it, or if it was Colonel Mustard in the library with a candlestick. But I love scientific mysteries even more.
Recently, scientists doing research at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab, announced a measurement that is a real puzzler. It involves a subatomic particle called the neutrino, which is the ghost of the microcosm, able to pass through Earth without interacting. And that’s BEFORE we start talking about the weird stuff.
The recent measurement, performed by a collaboration of scientists called MiniBooNE, could herald the possible discovery of a new kind of neutrino that could possibly be the source of dark matter — one of the most pressing conundrums of modern astronomy. But to understand how it all hangs together, you need to know the history of neutrinos, which is a fascinating tale with twist and turns that would make Agatha Christie’s head spin.
Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli first proposed the existence of neutrinos in 1930. We now know that neutrinos interact only through what is unimaginatively called the “weak force,” which is the weakest of the forces that has any impact over distances that are smaller than atoms. Neutrinos are created in nuclear reactions and in particle accelerators.
In 1956, a team of physicists led by Americans Clyde Cowan and Frederick Reines observed the ghostly particles for the first time. For their discovery, Reines shared the 1995 Nobel Prize in physics. (Cowan died before the prize was awarded.)
Over the decades, it became clear that there were three different kinds of neutrinos, now called flavors. Each neutrino flavor is distinct, like the vanilla, strawberry and chocolate Neapolitan ice cream of your childhood. The actual flavors of the neutrinos come from their association with other subatomic particles. There is the electron neutrino, muon neutrino and tau neutrino, which are linked to the electron, muon and tau, respectively. The electron is the familiar particle from inside atoms, and the muon and tau are the chubbier and unstable cousins of the electron.
Each flavor of neutrino is distinct and never the twain (or three in this case) shall meet. Or so it seemed.
In the 1960s and 1970s, a mystery arose…a neutrino enigma, as it were. American researchers Raymond Davis and John Bahcall tried to calculate and measure the rate of neutrinos (specifically electron neutrinos) produced in the biggest nuclear reactor around: the sun. When the prediction and measurement were compared, they disagreed. Experimenter Davis found only about a third as many electron neutrinos as theorist Bahcall predicted.
That particular experiment was jaw-droppingly amazing. Davis used a container the size of an Olympic swimming pool full of standard dry-cleaning fluid to detect the neutrinos. The idea was that when neutrinos from the sun hit the chlorine atoms in the dry-cleaning fluid, those atoms would turn into argon. Davis would wait for a couple weeks and then try to extract the argon. He expected something like 10 argon atoms, but he found only three. Yes, you read that right … only three atoms.
In addition to the experimental difficulty, the calculation that Bahcall did was challenging and extremely sensitive to the core temperature of the sun. A tiny, tiny, change in the temperature of the sun changed the prediction of number of neutrinos that should be produced.
Other experiments confirmed the discrepancy Bahcall and Davis observed, but given the difficulty of what they attempted to do, I was pretty sure that one of them had made a mistake. Both the calculation and measurement were just so incredibly tough to pull off. But I was wrong.
Another discrepancy puzzled researchers. Neutrinos are produced in Earth’s atmosphere when cosmic rays from outer space slam into the air that we all breathe. Scientists know with great confidence that when this happens, muon and electron neutrinos are produced in a 2-to-1 ratio. Yet, when these neutrinos were measured, muon and electron neutrinos were found in 1-to-1 ratio. Yet again, neutrinos confused physicists.
The mystery of neutrinos from the sun and from cosmic rays from space was solved in 1998, when researchers in Japan used a huge underground tank of 50,000 tons of water to study the ratio of muon and electron neutrinos created in the atmosphere 12 miles above the tank, compared to the same ratio created on the other side of the planet, or about 8,000 miles away. By employing this clever approach, they found that the neutrinos were changing their identity as they traveled. For example, in the Davis-Bahcall conundrum, electron neutrinos from the sun were changing into the other two flavors. [Images: Inside the World’s Top Physics Labs]
This phenomenon of neutrinos changing flavors, much like vanilla becoming strawberry or chocolate, is called neutrino oscillation. This is because neutrinos don’t just change their identity and stop. Instead, if they are given enough time, the three kinds of neutrinos constantly swap their identities over and over again. The neutrino oscillation explanation was confirmed and further clarified in 2001 by an experimentconducted in Sudbury, Ontario.
If you’ve found this story dizzying, we’re just getting started. Over the years, neutrinos have generated more surprises than a soap opera during Sweeps Week.
With the phenomenon of neutrino oscillation established, scientists could study it using particle accelerators. They could make beams of neutrinos and characterize how quickly they morph from one flavor to another. In fact, there is an entire neutrino- oscillation industry, with accelerators around the globe studying the phenomenon. The flagship laboratory for neutrino studies is my own Fermilab.