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What is a neutrino?

Aksel L. Hallin, a physics professor at Queen's University and the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, gives this description:
Neutrino tracks
NEUTRINO TRAILS.When a neutrino hits the heavy water in the detector's spherical vessel, a cone of light--here clearly visible in red--spreads out to sensors surrounding the device. The neutrinos detected in this event are probably muon-neutrinos, produced when cosmic rays strike the earth's atmosphere.

A neutrino is a subatomic particle that is very similar to an electron, but has no electrical charge and a very small mass, which might even be zero. Neutrinos are one of the most abundant particles in the universe. Because they have very little interaction with matter, however, they are incredibly difficult to detect. Nuclear forces treat electrons and neutrinos identically; neither participate in the strong nuclear force, but both participate equally in the weak nuclear force. Particles with this property are termed leptons. In addition to the electron (and it's anti-particle, the positron), the charged leptons include the muon (with a mass 200 times greater than that of the electron), the tau (with mass 3,500 times greater than that of the electron) and their anti-particles.

Both the muon and the tau, like the electron, have accompanying neutrinos, which are called the muon-neutrino and tau-neutrino. The three neutrino types appear to be distinct: For instance, when muon-neutrinos interact with a target, they will always produce muons, and never taus or electrons. In particle interactions, although electrons and electron-neutrinos can be created and destroyed, the sum of the number of electrons and electron-neutrinos is conserved. This fact leads to dividing the leptons into three families, each with a charged lepton and its accompanying neutrino.

To detect neutrinos, very large and very sensitive detectors are required. Typically, a low-energy neutrino will travel through many light-years of normal matter before interacting with anything. Consequently, all terrestrial neutrino experiments rely on measuring the tiny fraction of neutrinos that interact in reasonably sized detectors. For example, in the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, a 1000 ton heavy water solar-neutrino detector picks up about 1012 neutrinos each second. About 30 neutrinos per day are detected.

solar neutrino
FAINT EVIDENCE. In this solar neutrino event, 75 of the 9,600 light sensors in the detector observed a photon of light. Lines trace the path from the neutrino's impact with heavy water to the light sensors.

Wolfgang Pauli first postulated the existance of the neutrino in 1930. At that time, a problem arose because it seemed that both energy and angular momentum were not conserved in beta-decay. But Pauli pointed out that if a non-interacting, neutral particle--a neutrino--were emitted, one could recover the conservation laws. The first detection of neutrinos did not occur until 1955, when Clyde Cowan and Frederick Reines recorded anti-neutrinos emitted by a nuclear reactor.

Natural sources of neutrinos include the radioactive decay of primordial elements within the earth, which generate a large flux of low-energy electron-anti-neutrinos. Calculations show that about 2 percent of the sun's energy is carried away by neutrinos produced in fusion reactions there. Supernovae too are predominantly a neutrino phenomenon, because neutrinos are the only particles that can penetrate the very dense material produced in a collapsing star; only a small fraction of the available energy is converted to light. It is possible that a large fraction of the dark matter of the universe consists of primordial, Big Bang neutrinos.

The fields related to neutrino particles and astrophysics are rich, diverse and developing rapidly. So it is impossible to try to summarize all of the activities in the field in a short note. That said, current questions attracting a large amount of experimental and theoretical effort include the following: What are the masses of the various neutrinos? How do they affect Big Bang cosmology? Do neutrinos oscillate? Or can neutrinos of one type change into another type as they travel through matter and space? Are neutrinos fundamentally distinct from their anti-particles? How do stars collapse and form supernovae? What is the role of the neutrino in cosmology?

One long-standing issue of particular interest is the so-called solar neutrino problem. This name refers to the fact that several terrestrial experiments, spanning the past three decades, have consistently observed fewer solar neutrinos than would be necessary to produce the energy emitted from the sun. One possible solution is that neutrinos oscillate--that is, the electron neutrinos created in the sun change into muon- or tau-neutrinos as they travel to the earth. Because it is much more difficult to measure low-energy muon- or tau-neutrinos, this sort of conversion would explain why we have not observed the correct number of neutrinos on Earth.

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