Isherwood Commentary: The Neutrino Thing
By Justin Isherwood
Neutrinos have been the juicy science rumor since their existence was theorized in 1931 (missing matter from Beta decay) to their discovery in 1959 (Cowan and Reines). Neutrinos are called neutrinos because and despite their matter comprises 25% of the mass of the known universe, despite neutrinos don’t seem to do anything. They are like some aged great aunt of creation, neutrinos just are, a reactionless, nerveless particle, and in spite of this every second tens of thousands of these particles go through our bodies, plunge through the earth, missile through the core of stars, all of it, unaffected.
Neutrinos are called the ghost particle because of this ghostly behavior. Neutrinos are strange even in the brethren company of nuclear physics known for strangeness.
Ice Cube is a neutrino observatory built into the 9000 altitude ice plateau of Antarctica’s Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. Ice Cube is operated by a team based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison involving 49 other universities and institutes. Appropriately named Ice Cube for its cubic kilometer of ice where 5,160 sensors have been installed to detect to 8000 feet beneath the surface a neutrino reaction on one of those sensors. The neutrino is so small and so neutral in character that despite their ubiquitous presence, “head-on collisions” are rare.
Neutrinos come in varying energies, low energy neutrinos are created when cosmic rays (high energy protons) strike the earth’s atmosphere. Ice Cube detects about 200 of these per day. In September 2017 a high energy neutrino identified as “Ice Cube 170922A” was detected at an energy of 300 million electron volts, this is not low energy.
When a neutrino does hit the nucleus of an atom, the nucleus emits a secondary particle coincident to producing a cone of blue light, this reaction what sensors of Ice Cube register and in turn create a grid of the neutrino’s path. When this happens, Ice Cube, collaborating with other observatories, coordinate the trajectories in hope of identifying the neutrino source. In this case a known blazer in the constellation Orion. The blazer is actually a distant galaxy, specifically TXS0506+056, with a massive black hole at its center that sporadically emits a jet stream of gamma rays and neutrinos in line with its axis. This neutrino stream was coincidentally pointed at the Earth from 4 billion light years away. The energy of this stream estimated at 400 giga-electron volts (a gigavolt is 1 billion volts).
For most of us neutrinos and the science of neutrinos don’t affect our lives in any real way, as is the case for much of the scientific research going on around the world. Here is that longstanding question whether the research monies of the nations would be better spent feeding people and fixing roads? A former senator of Wisconsin William Proxmire was rather famous for asking these uncomfortable questions of science. If this same senator did enjoy the benefit of a hair transplant whose previous research might have gained one of his now coveted “Golden Fleece” awards.
The answer to why research is as obvious as our late Senator’s hair transplant, for what seems but ivory tower research at its initial stage can turn out to be the next medical miracle, material transformation, safe drinking water, energy source, or any of the host of innovations that regularly spread through culture and industry. In a world plagued by plastic waste, we know we will eventually figure this out, by adopting means found by basic research. The passenger pigeon is extinct, as is the wooly mammoth. Guess what … there is an abiding chance we can bring them back to the living world by again applying what at the outset seems “weird science.” Once polio was a scourge, and smallpox, and malaria, once we had to find a telephone booth to phone home.
Neutrino research is about our basic human curiosity, that need to know how things work including the most powerful energy force in the universe save the Big Bang itself. The parent black hole of the neutrino source found by Ice Cube last September is estimated as a mass of a billion suns. From whose axis occasionally spew jets of particles at energies and physics a billion solar masses can provide.
All research somewhere underneath contains the basic wow factor. If 99% of research is dull, tons of boring numbers, data points, statistical analysis, the 1% wow factor is enough to drive the 1 trillion dollars in research the world currently spends, what the average public citizen doesn’t understand.
Science and its research is the essence of our human civilization, at every age and every epoch since the dawn of tools, research has been the peg our species has hung its hat on.
The philosopher Democritus invented the concept of the atom in 400 B.C. In the early 20th century we opened the atom to find even more particles and their energies. Half a century later it was used as a war tool. We are still struggling with that potential. To guess we will continue to do so. Ours is a species not merely alive but trying to understand how this world, this universe, its stuff, its ecology, how it all works. As scripture suggests, there will be war and peace and corporations.