The Ghost Particle: What Is a Neutrino and Could It Be the Key to Modern Physics?


It got here from deep area, transferring on the velocity of sunshine, and crashed into Antarctica. Deep under the ice, it met its finish. It wasn’t an asteroid or alien spacecraft, however a particle that not often interacts with matter, often known as a neutrino.  

Although theorized within the Thirties and first detected within the Fifties, neutrinos keep a mysterious aura, and are sometimes dubbed “ghost particles” — they are not haunting or harmful, however they only zip by the Earth with out us even noticing them. Oh, “and it is a cool title,” in accordance with astrophysicist Clancy James at Curtin College in Western Australia.

Lately, ghost particles have been making headlines for all types of causes and never simply because they’ve a cool title. That Antarctic collision was traced to a black gap that shredded a star, as an illustration, and different neutrinos appear to return by way of the solar. In early 2022, physicists have been in a position to instantly pin down the approximate mass of a neutrino — a discovery that would assist uncover new physics or break the foundations of the Commonplace Mannequin. 

Think about if we really captured a ghost and will say the specter was of somebody who had died. It might change all the pieces we all know in regards to the universe. A ghost particle is just about an enormous deal for a similar cause, and that is why astrophysicists try to lure them. They’re excited, and this is why you ought to be, too.

The IceCube observatory at the South Pole, surrounded by snow, with a central rectangular unit and two cylindrical towers on either side

The IceCube observatory in Antarctica.

Erik Beiser, IceCube/NSF

What’s a neutrino?

In a nutshell, a neutrino is a elementary, subatomic particle. Underneath the Commonplace Mannequin of particle physics it is categorised as a “lepton.” Different leptons embody electrons, the negatively charged particles that make up atoms, with protons and neutrons. However look, if we get into all that, we will go actual deep on particle physics and it will explode our brains.

The neutrino is exclusive as a result of it has a vanishingly small mass and no electrical cost and it is discovered throughout the universe. “They’re made within the solar, in nuclear reactors, and when high-energy cosmic rays smash into Earth’s environment,” says Eric Thrane, an astrophysicist at Monash College in Australia. They’re additionally made by a number of the most excessive and highly effective objects we all know of, like supermassive black holes and exploding stars, and so they have been additionally produced firstly of the universe: the Massive Bang. 

Like mild, they travel in mainly a straight line from the place they’re created in area. Different charged particles are on the mercy of magnetic fields, however neutrinos simply barrel by the cosmos with out obstacle; a ghostly bullet fired from a monstrous cosmic gun.

And, as you learn this, trillions of them are zipping by the Earth and straight by you.

They’re crashing into me proper now?

Sure, precisely. Each second of every single day for the reason that day you have been born, neutrinos have been transferring by your physique. You simply do not know it as a result of they work together with hardly something. They do not smash into the atoms that make you up, and so you do not even know they’re there. Identical to a shadowy spirit passing by a wall, the neutrino strikes proper on by. Fortuitously, there is not any exorcism required.

However why ought to I care about neutrinos?

Finding out them for many years has thrown up a little bit of a shock for scientists. Underneath the usual mannequin, neutrinos should not have any mass. However they do. “The very fact they do factors us to new physics to boost our understanding of the universe,” notes James.

The puzzle of the neutrino mass first got here to mild within the Nineteen Sixties. Scientists had advised the solar needs to be producing what’s often known as electron neutrinos, a specific sort of the subatomic particle. Nevertheless it wasn’t. This “photo voltaic neutrino drawback” led to a breakthrough discovery: that neutrinos can change taste. 

Like an almost-empty bag of Mentos, the ghost particle is available in simply three distinct flavors — electron, muon and tau — and so they can change taste as they transfer by area (taste is the precise terminology, I am not making that up for this analogy). As an illustration, an electron neutrino may be produced by the solar after which be later detected as a muon neutrino. 

And such a change implies the neutrino does have mass. Physics tells us they could not change taste in the event that they have been massless. Now analysis efforts are targeted on elucidating what the mass is.

In a research printed within the prestigious journal Nature in February 2022, researchers revealed the mass of a neutrino to be extremely tiny (however positively there). Physicists have been in a position to present instantly, utilizing a neutrino detector in Germany, that the utmost mass for a neutrino is round eight-tenths of an electron volt (eV). That is an unfathomably tiny mass, greater than 1,000,000 occasions “lighter” than an electron.

The barrel-shaped detector of the KATRIN is wheeled between houses near Leopoldshafen, southern Germany

The is what a ghost hunter seems to be like: The primary spectrometer of the Karlsruhe Tritium Neutrino Experiment (KATRIN) is manoeuvred by a highway in southern Germany.

Michael Latz/Getty

Wait! A neutrino detector? However aren’t they… ghost particles? How do you detect neutrinos?

As James notes, “the darn issues principally cross straight by no matter detector you construct!”

However there are a selection of the way to lure a ghost.

One of many key elements you want is area. Bodily area, deep underground. For excellent outcomes, scientists have constructed their neutrino detectors below meters of ice in Antarctica and, quickly, on the backside of the ocean. This helps hold the information clear from any interference from issues like cosmic rays, which might bombard the delicate detectors on the floor. The detector in Antarctica, often known as IceCube, is buried about 8,000 toes straight down.

“Trapping” a ghost particle may not really be the very best terminology for what these detectors are doing. IceCube, as an illustration, does not maintain any neutrinos prisoner. The particles principally blast straight by the detector. However on the way in which, some very (very!) not often work together with the Antarctic ice and produce a bathe of secondary particles emitting a sort of blue mild often known as Cherenkov radiation. A spread of light-sensing spherical modules, vertically organized like beads on a string, choose up the sunshine these particles emit. An identical detector exists in Japan: Tremendous-Kamiokande. This makes use of a 55,000 ton tank of water as an alternative of ice and is buried below Mount Ikeno.

Each are in a position to detect which path the neutrino got here from and its taste. And so, physicists can see indicators the ghost particle was there, however not the ghost particle itself. It is form of like a poltergeist — you possibly can see the way in which it interacts with chairs (throwing them at you) and lights (menacingly switching them on and off), however you possibly can’t see the phantom itself. Spooky!

The solar is thought to provide a selected sort of neutrino


Nice. So what can we study from neutrinos?

Neutrinos are a elementary particle in our universe, which implies they underlie, not directly, all the pieces that exists. Studying extra about neutrinos will assist unlock a number of the mysteries of physics.

“Particle physicists research neutrinos in an effort to search for clues for physics past the Commonplace Mannequin,” says Thrane. He notes that physicists need to perceive if neutrinos violate a number of the elementary legal guidelines of the Commonplace Mannequin. “This may increasingly make clear why there’s extra matter than antimatter within the Universe,” Thrane says, noting that the issue has been known as one of many nice mysteries in physics. 

We additionally know that excessive cosmic objects and occasions can produce them. As an illustration, exploding stars, or supernovas, are recognized to create neutrinos and shoot them throughout the universe. So are supermassive black holes chomping on gasoline, mud and stars. 

“Detecting neutrinos tells us about what’s going on in these objects,” says James.

As a result of they hardly work together with the encompassing matter, we might use neutrinos to see these kinds of objects and perceive them in areas of the universe we won’t research with different electromagnetic wavelengths (like optical mild, UV and radio). For instance, scientists might peer into the guts of the Milky Manner, which is tough to watch in different electromagnetic wavelengths as a result of our view is interfered with by gasoline and dirt. 

Dependable detection and tracing might stimulate an astronomy revolution akin to the one we’re presently seeing with gravitational waves. Primarily, neutrinos can provide us a complete new eye on the cosmos, complementing our current set of telescopes and detectors to disclose what is going on on within the void. 

After which there are “sterile” neutrinos which…

Oh god. What are sterile neutrinos? 

I in all probability ought to’ve saved these below wraps, however seeing as you are right here, sterile neutrinos are a complete different class of neutrinos. They’re totally theoretical, however scientists suppose they seemingly exist due to a characteristic in physics often known as chirality. Primarily, the traditional neutrinos we have been discussing are what some name “left-handed.” So, some physicists suppose there could also be “right-handed” neutrinos — sterile neutrinos. 

They provide them this title as a result of they do not work together with different particles by way of the weak power, like regular neutrinos. They work together solely by gravity. These kind of neutrinos are thought of a candidate for darkish matter, the stuff that makes up greater than 1 / 4 of the universe however that we have by no means seen. 

Meaning neutrinos may also assist reply one other vexing puzzle in physics: What, precisely, is darkish matter? There are many candidates for darkish matter theorized by physicists, and there is nonetheless a lot to study — it might not be associated to neutrinos in any respect!

A graphic image of the four types of neutrino: electron neutrino, muon neutrino, tau neutrino, sterile neutrino

The three flavors of neutrino and the theoretical “sterile” neutrino.

IceCube Collaboration

Cool. Anything I must learn about neutrinos?

As Deborah Conway as soon as sang, “It is solely the start, however I’ve already gone and misplaced my thoughts.”

We’ve not gotten into a number of the extra mind-blowing theories about neutrinos, like neutrinoless double beta decay and the thought of the neutrino as a Majorana particle. 

A number of new neutrino experiments have been proposed, together with the Big Radio Array for Neutrino Detection, or GRAND, which might see as much as 200,000 receivers positioned. The whole space of the array is designed to be about the identical dimension as Nice Britain. The primary 10,000 antennas are anticipated to be positioned on the Tibetan plateau, close to the town of Dunhuang, within the subsequent few years.

Although we have been in a position to detect and hint just a few neutrinos to date, the following decade ought to see neutrino astronomy actually take off. The underside line is that understanding neutrinos, their flavors and lots more and plenty, will present a window into the basic nature of our universe. 

And it is all the time cool to chase ghosts. 

Initially printed on April 17.

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