Scientists can detect ghost particles

The first use of a hydrogen bubble chamber to detect neutrinos, on November 13, 1970. A neutrino hit a proton in a hydrogen atom. The collision occurred at the point where three tracks emanate on the right of the photograph. (Argonne National Laboratory/Wikimedia Creative Commons)

Science is rapidly advancing. Whether you believe it or not, we’re already a lot closer to the Jetsons’ world than you think: mobile GPS, cars that can drive themselves and even a small box that can play your favorite music and shut off your living room lights at the sound of your command. There are jetpacks, flying cars and, let’s not forget, drones.

Science, of course, is not just mechanical engineering; there are scientists who constantly research the tiniest, merest fragments of our existence. These fragments range from cells to particles of matter, and when you think they couldn’t go any further, our advanced human race proves us wrong yet again; scientists are detecting particles that are invisible. Ghost particles.

How can that be? Well, since the beginning of time, people have always wanted to discover the truth about the creation of the sun, the stars and life. To reach their goal, scientists, specifically physicists, must understand the smallest particles of matter.

The most difficult particles to perceive are neutrinos. This Italian-sounding name was coined by Italian physicist Enrico Fermi. Fermi discovered the tiny particles and called them “small neutrons” in Italian, or “neutrinos” for short.

There are three different types of neutrinos known as the electron neutrino, the muon neutrino and the tau neutrino; all of them pair up with their bigger siblings. The electron neutrino would be with the electron, the muon neutrino with the muon neutron, etc. None of these types have an electric charge, and there’s no indication of what their individual masses could be. The three of them put together equals a mass of 30 million times smaller than a single electron. Can you imagine how hard it could be to measure just a single neutrino?

Scientists have discovered that neutrinos also hardly interact with other particles, making them very hard to detect. They’re practically invisible. What’s more is that because of this invisibility, they can travel through people, walls, trees, the ground—anything. Scientists, realizing this, have nicknamed the neutrinos as “ghost particles.” In fact, as you walk outside on one of your errands, there are at least a trillion neutrinos going through you, and you have no idea. Quite scary, if you ask me.

Through tedious research, scientists have discovered that to find neutrinos you need a vast receptacle of matter and pray that eventually a neutrino would strike a molecule of said vast receptacle and create a signal. Such receptacles—neutrino detectors—use water, any other liquid and ice as the bait. The bait is the molecule that the neutrino will collide with through lucky circumstance. When a collision happens with a neutrino and a water molecule, a flash of radiation similar to that of a sonic boom is emitted.

The Japanese have gone full speed ahead in developing an advanced neutrino detector; it’s called the Super-Kamiokande detector. It  is made of a huge stainless steel cylindrical tank about 139 feet in size and holds 50,000 tons of ultrapure water to detect neutrinos. When a neutrino clashes with its water molecules, the flash of radiation—called Cherenkov radiation—emitted from the clash is detected by one of 110,000 photo sensors along the detector walls. The Super-Kamiokande is buried 3,281 feet below the earth’s surface as it goes through the detecting processes.

Neutrinos have been known to be created by powerful events like supernova explosions and eventhe Big Bang. With physicists able to study neutrinos, there’s a wide array of possibility for the advancement of the human race.


Joseph Frare is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at joseph.frare@uconn.edu.