Neutrinos Changing the Face of Particle Physics

Subatomic Neutrino Tracks

Recently the world of quantum physics was thrown into chaos when scientists at CERN in Switzerland appeared to have proved that neutrinos could travel at speeds greater than light. This caused such turmoil as it disproved Einstein’s law of special relativity which, in short, states that mass increases exponentially as it approaches the speed of light. However this was soon seen to be caused from two mistakes: a leaky fibre optic cable and a broken clock. Once these were fixed and tests were rerun the velocity of the neutrinos slowed and was once again surpassed by the speed of light dashing hopes of solid evidence for many exotic physics principles. The neutrinos were in fact travelling within 0.5 nanoseconds (0.5×10-9 seconds) with an error of 8 nanoseconds. This error is being lessened through calculation and is the most accurate measurement of velocity ever achieved.

But the real reason behind this experiment was not for matter to go faster than the speed of light, but to capture evidence of neutrinos ‘shape-shifting’. This ‘shape-shifting’ applies to the three different ‘flavours’ that neutrinos can assume; tau, electron and muon. Before this experiment several other experiments had provided evidence that neutrinos could shift or oscillate between these three flavours. This was a massive turning point in particle physics as it would prove that seemingly ‘massless’ particles actually had an infinitesimally small mass. The reason for the importance of this discovery is that it gives us one of the justifications for there being more matter in the universe than anti-matter.

This phenomenon was first documented in 2010 when the OPERA experiment under the Italian alps showed a lone tau neutrino appearing in a beam of billions of muon neutrinos. However this was cited as experimental error until recently when the test was repeated and the same phenomenon occurred. This second tau neutrino appearing gives physicists reason to believe that it is not experimental error and that there is a scientific basis to what is happening. From this discovery there may have to be a radical change in the way we think about particle physics. However this shape shifting of neutrinos will only happen in very extreme conditions. To produce this phenomenon the muon neutrino was fired 730km from CERN in Geneva taking 2.4 milliseconds. These would be the kind of conditions found only in very extreme cases on the universe, such as a supernova.

This has been cited as one of the most exciting discoveries in particle physics in the past few decades. Roberto Petronzio, INFN chief, feels that this may lead to a completely new form of physics. Scientists could begin to see “new particles, new types of interaction or even new space-time dimensions.” Although these oscillations are incredibly rare and have a low probability of occurring when the number of particles in the universe are taken into account we can assume that huge numbers of these oscillations are taking place every second.

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About William Whitby

Will is a student reading Engineering in London. He has always had a great interest in how things work especially on the nanoscale and the particle scale. As well as freelance writing Will enjoys rock and ice climbing, skiing and socialising. Will is also a model and an entrepreneur. He hopes to one day complete the trek to the North Pole with his dad, who he does most of his climbing with. His main drive is the pursuit of knowledge and the most important question, why are we here?
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