Neutrinos: 1968

In 1964, Raymond Davis Jr. and John N. Bahcall proposed that an experiment with 100,000 gallons of cleaning fluid (perchloroethylene, which is mostly composed of chlorine) could provide a critical test of the idea that nuclear fusion reactions are the ultimate source of solar radiation which was eventually conducted in the year 1968.

"We argued that, if our understanding of nuclear processes in the interior of the sun was correct, then solar neutrinos would be captured at a rate Davis could measure with a large tank filled with cleaning fluid. When neutrinos interact with chlorine, they occasionally produce a radioactive isotope of argon. Davis had shown previously that he could extract tiny amounts of neutrino-produced argon from large quantities of perchloroethylene. To do the solar neutrino experiment, he had to be spectacularly clever since according to my calculations only, a few atoms would be produced per week in a huge Olympic-sized swimming pool of cleaning fluid.

Our sole motivation for urging this experiment was to use neutrinos to enable us to see into the interior of a star and thus verify directly the hypothesis of nuclear energy generation in stars. As we shall see, Davis and I did not anticipate some of the most interesting aspects of this proposal.

Davis performed the experiment and in 1968 announced the first results. He measured fewer neutrinos than I predicted. As the experiment and the theory were refined, the disagreement appeared more robust. Scientists rejoiced that solar neutrinos were detected but worried why there were fewer neutrinos than predicted.

What was wrong? Was our understanding of how the sun shines incorrect? Had I made an error in calculating the rate at which solar neutrinos would be captured in Davis's tank? Was the experiment wrong? Or, did something happen to the neutrinos after they were created in the sun? Over the next twenty years, many different possibilities were examined by hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of physicists, chemists, and astronomers. Both the experiment and the theoretical calculation appeared to be correct."

--John N. Bahcall