Part of the neutrino mystery unlocked


Imagine that Ben Roethlisberger has just thrown a long bomb to Hines Ward, but sometime… Imagine that Ben Roethlisberger has just thrown a long bomb to Hines Ward, but sometime between when the ball left Ben’s hands to when Ward catches it, the football changed into a bowling ball?


Try to imagine instead thousands of infinitesimally small particles shot out of a “cannon” from Illinois to Minnesota and more than 130 scientists who are trying to “catch” them at the other end. The trip only takes a millisecond or two.

Maybe they should hire Hines Ward.

But recently, scientists at the Department of Energy’s National Accelerator Laboratory have come up with an immaculate reception of their own, and their success has helped the scientific community determine that the neutrino has mass.

The neutrino is a type of particle emission and wave that helps make up about half the known matter in the universe. Its mercurial properties are related to other small particles, and any information that scientists can get from the neutrino will help them understand more about the universe as a whole.

Donna Naples, an associate Professor at Pitt and one of the scientists involved in the study, said that neutrinos produced in the initial big bang reaction are still part of the background radiation in space.

“They were produced in the early part of the universe and they can help us to understand how it evolved,” Naples said.

She said that knowing more about neutrinos would understand how matter began to “clump” together, but unlike football players on a ball, these clumps would end up becoming what we know today as planets, stars and galaxies.

The experiment, known as the Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search experiment, attempted to corroborate a recent Japanese study by measuring the neutrinos when they arrived in Minnesota. The differences between the averages of the neutrinos would give the scientists involved an idea of a mass range, since it is impossible right now to determine a specific mass.

Scientists, engineers, and others from over 32 institutions and six countries participated in the experiment, according to a University press release.

A knowledge of neutrinos would have a wide-ranging impact on the ability of scientists to observe astronomical phenomena as well. Since neutrinos barely react to matter at all, they are usually unchanged by what they pass through.

For example, a supernova releases 100 times more neutrinos than photons, but while light reaching earth and our telescopes has been changed by the space and matter it has passed through, a neutrino, which travels almost as fast as light, has not.

So much for hang time.

The experiment, though, was very much a team effort, with each of the scientists involved contributing their research, equipment and time to help the overall effort. For example, there were two detectors and the beam itself. Naples helped design the machine that would measure the fluctuation properties of the particles as they were launched out of the beam.

Neutrinos don’t just occur in stars and exist in background radiation, they are also generated by nuclear decay, such as from inside the earth and from atomic bombs.

“You put it all together and everything has to work,” Naples said.

But is this the big victory they were looking for? Naples admitted that in terms of understanding particles, they were still in the pre-season.

“This is just one more piece in the puzzle,” Naples said.

She added that despite what many people hope for from the future, knowing more about neutrinos won’t give us hover-cars or jetpacks.

“There is no gadget you can build,” Naples said.

Which is probably a good thing, since it is hard to run a bowling ball in for a touchdown.