A neutrino is not a summer drink; my afternoon with the underdog particle

     The globe of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN, is illuminated outside Geneva. In 2010 scientists at the world's largest physics lab clocked subatomic particles, called neutrinos, traveling faster than light, breaking a fundamental pillar of science. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus, file)

    The globe of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN, is illuminated outside Geneva. In 2010 scientists at the world's largest physics lab clocked subatomic particles, called neutrinos, traveling faster than light, breaking a fundamental pillar of science. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus, file)

    On a recent afternoon, Pamela Forsythe happened upon an article about neurtinos — subatomic particles created in the sun, with nearly no mass or electrical charge, that move faster than light. She was hooked.

    In the galaxy of information at our fingertips, it’s very easy to miss real news. Occasionally I read an actual newspaper, just to see what editors with limited space think is important. That’s how, deep on page six, I read an article I would have ignored on the Web, if I had even seen it, because checking news online is like driving on the Schuylkill — you zoom along in your own lane, follow your own route, aim for your exit, and hope nothing crashes.

    Faster than light

    Turning real pages, however, gave my eyes time to land on a piece about the sun and neutrinos, minute particles created in the sun’s center when other particles collide. I had never heard of neutrinos. They shoot away from the sun, and the ones aimed at Earth arrive just 8.3 minutes later, slightly faster than light.

    Until that moment, I hadn’t realized there was a speed faster than light. I read on.

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    Neutrinos have almost no mass and no electrical charge, so they slip through the cosmos unimpeded, passing effortlessly through everything in their path. Including us. Every instant, we are bombarded by trillions of neutrinos, but we can neither see nor feel them. They don’t ping as they pierce our eardrums, nor tickle our ribs as they zip by. We are completely unaware. It turns out that neutrinos are the subatomic version of the National Security Agency.

    Crossing everything in their path

    The idea of being crisscrossed by all those neutrinos stopped me cold, but not because it but it was hard to imagine. After all, I had learned years ago about guardian angels. If I can believe an angel sits on my shoulder, why not believe in a neutrino puncturing my lung?

    I laid the paper aside and went back to work — or tried to — but I kept thinking about neutrinos, wondering what else they did, what they looked like. I just couldn’t get neutrinos to go to the corner of my mind where useful information goes to die. The word felt cool and clear, nu-treen-os.

    I pictured tiny crystal spheres, some jauntily sporting microscopic wedges of lime. In my head, neutrinos looked as refreshing as they sounded.

    I typed “neutrino” into a search engine. Up popped a long list of physics websites, which are not written for people who conflate subatomic particles with summer drinks. I took notes, thinking that the act of writing would bring understanding. It didn’t, but here’s what I took down:

    Neutrinos are fundamental particles like electrons, but without an electrical charge.
    Their existence was predicted in 1931 and confirmed in 1959.
    There are three kinds: electron neutrinos, muon neutrinos, and tau neutrinos.

    Muon? Tau? I thought I’d accidentally left the English-speaking Web, but no — I recognized the other words, if not the sense of them. There were also a lot of formulae, strings of mathematical symbols that vividly reminded me why I had not taken physics in college.

    Overshadowed by the God particle

    Stubbornly, I kept reading. There was a lot on the web about the “God particle,” the Higgs boson. The Higgs boson was the toast of particle physics last July, when its existence was finally confirmed. It had been predicted 50 years earlier by British physicist Peter Higgs and, before that, by Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose, who collaborated with Albert Einstein on an early version of the theory. (The boson class of particles is named for him.)

    I recognized the Higgs boson from last summer’s hoopla, which only made me feel worse for the neutrino, which has been official for more than a half-century, but is still fairly anonymous. Too bad Twitter wasn’t around in 1959.

    A feast for the imagination

    Even with microscopic comprehension, it’s fascinating to consider the random intelligence in my notes. Such as:

    Each elementary particle has a corresponding antiparticle.
    Neutrinos are a million times lighter than electrons.
    Particles can be right- or left-handed.

    It feels good just having these niblets rocketing through my head, like a barrage of misguided neutrinos. And, while the little underdog remains my favorite subatomic particle, it has several poetic colleagues, including the lepton, fermion, hadron, meson, baryon, and gluon.

    By the way, gluons hold things together. Isn’t that great?

    Though it was mostly confusing, I did come away from my neutrino afternoon with a few insights. First, persistence is required in physics and almost everything else. It took 28 years for neutrinos to move from hypothesis to fact, and the better part of a century for the Higgs boson to go from theory to confirmation.

    Second, the subatomic universe is unexpectedly lyrical, as welcoming to the imagination as to the intellect.

    Finally, it was nice visiting a universe that’s closer than an eyelash but can’t be seen, filled with crashing particles that can’t be heard, inconceivably small, incredibly active, from which comes everything that can be seen and heard.

    What are neutrinos? I still don’t know, but am glad I wasted an afternoon not finding out.

    Pamela J. Forsythe is a writer and communications consultant in Philadelphia.

    CORRECTION: A previous version of this essay stated that neutrinos take nine minutes to travel from the sun to Earth, and that they are faster than the light from the sun. The correct time elapsed is closer to 8.3 minutes, which is only slightly faster than light, not “far faster” as previously stated. Both corrections have been made. We regret the error.

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