‘Ghost Particle’ chronicles the neutrino’s discovery and what’s left to learn

Author James Riordon talks with Science News about the new book

A photo of the inside of the Super-Kamiokande neutrino observatory.

The Super-Kamiokande neutrino observatory (shown from the inside) is buried one kilometer beneath the ground near Hida, Japan.

© 2020 Kamioka Observatory/ICRR (Institute for Cosmic Ray Research)/The University of Tokyo

Ghost Particle
Alan Chodos and James Riordon
MIT Press, $32.95

We live in a sea of neutrinos. Every second, trillions of them pass through our bodies. They come from the sun, nuclear reactors, collisions of cosmic rays hitting Earth’s atmosphere, even the Big Bang. Among fundamental particles, only photons are more numerous. Yet because neutrinos barely interact with matter, they are notoriously difficult to detect.

The existence of the neutrino was first proposed in the 1930s and then verified in the 1950s (SN: 2/13/54). Decades later, much about the neutrino — named in part because it has no electric charge — remains a mystery, including how many varieties of neutrinos exist, how much mass they have, where that mass comes from and whether they have any magnetic properties.

These mysteries are at the heart of Ghost Particle by physicist Alan Chodos and science journalist James Riordon. The book is an informative, easy-to-follow introduction to the perplexing particle. Chodos and Riordon guide readers through how the neutrino was discovered, what we know — and don’t know — about it, and the ongoing and future experiments that (fingers crossed) will provide the answers.

It’s not just neutrino physicists who await those answers. Neutrinos, Riordon says, “are incredibly important both for understanding the universe and our existence in it.” Unmasking the neutrino could be key to unlocking the nature of dark matter, for instance. Or it could clear up the universe’s matter conundrum: The Big Bang should have produced equal amounts of matter and antimatter, the oppositely charged counterparts of electrons, protons and so on. When matter and antimatter come into contact, they annihilate each other. So in theory, the universe today should be empty — yet it’s not (SN: 9/22/22). It’s filled with matter and, for some reason, very little antimatter.

Science News spoke with Riordon, a frequent contributor to the magazine, about these puzzles and how neutrinos could act as a tool to observe the cosmos or even see into our own planet. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

SN: In the first chapter, you list eight unanswered questions about neutrinos. Which is the most pressing to answer?

Riordon: Whether they’re their own antiparticles is probably one of the grandest. The proposal that neutrinos are their own antiparticles is an elegant solution to all sorts of problems, including the existence of this residue of matter we live in. Another one is figuring out how neutrinos fit in the standard model [of particle physics]. It’s one of the most successful theories there is, but it can’t explain the fact that neutrinos have mass.

SN: Why is now a good time to write a book about neutrinos?

Riordon: All of these questions about neutrinos are sort of coming to a head right now — the hints that neutrinos may be their own antiparticles, the issues of neutrinos not quite fitting the standard model, whether there are sterile neutrinos [a hypothetical neutrino that is a candidate for dark matter]. In the next few years, a decade or so, there will be a lot of experiments that will [help answer these questions,] and the resolution either way will be exciting.

SN: Neutrinos could also be used to help scientists observe a range of phenomena. What are some of the most interesting questions neutrinos could help with?

Riordon: There are some observations that simply have to be done with neutrinos, that there are no other technological alternatives for. There’s a problem with using light-based telescopes to look back in history. We have this really amazing James Webb Space Telescope that can see really far back in history. But at some point, when you go far enough back, the universe is basically opaque to light; you can’t see into it. Once we narrow down how to detect and how to measure the cosmic neutrino background [neutrinos that formed less than a second after the Big Bang], it will be a way to look back at the very beginning. Other than with gravitational waves, you can’t see back that far with anything else. So it’ll give us sort of a telescope back to the beginning of the universe.

The other thing is, when a supernova happens, all kinds of really cool stuff happens inside, and you can see it with neutrinos because neutrinos come out immediately in a burst. We call it the “cosmic neutrino bomb,” but you can track the supernova as it’s going along. With light, it takes a while for it to get out [of the stellar explosion]. We’re due for a [nearby] supernova. We haven’t had one since 1987. It was the last visible supernova in the sky and was a boon for research. Now that we have neutrino detectors around the world, this next one is going to be even better [for research], even more exciting.

And if we develop better instrumentation, we could use neutrinos to understand what’s going on in the center of the Earth. There’s no other way that you could probe the center of the Earth. We use seismic waves, but the resolution is really low. So we could resolve a lot of questions about what the planet is made of with neutrinos.

SN: Do you have a favorite “character” in the story of neutrinos?

Riordon: I’m certainly very fond of my grandfather Clyde Cowan [he and Frederick Reines were the first physicists to detect neutrinos]. But Reines is a riveting character. He was poetic. He was a singer. He really was this creative force. I mentioned [in the book] that they put this “SNEWS” sign on their detector for “supernova early warning system,” which sort of echoed the ballistic missile early warning systems at the time [during the Cold War]. That’s so ripe.

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Erin Wayman is the managing editor for print and longform content at Science News. She has a master’s degree in biological anthropology from the University of California, Davis and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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