University of Wisconsin-Madison

All About Neutrinos

What is this thing, anyways?

Neutrinos are subatomic particles produced by the decay of radioactive elements and are elementary particles that lack an electric charge, or, as F. Reines would say, "...the most tiny quantity of reality ever imagined by a human being".

"The name neutrino was coined by Enrico Fermi as a word play on neutrone, the Italian name of the neutron."

Of all high-energy particles, only weakly interacting neutrinos can directly convey astronomical information from the edge of the universe - and from deep inside the most cataclysmic high-energy processes and as far as we know, there are three different types of neutrinos, each type relating to a charged particle as shown in the following table:

Charged Partnerelectron (e)muon (µ)tau (τ)

Copiously produced in high-energy collisions, travelling essentially at the speed of light, and unaffected by magnetic fields, neutrinos meet the basic requirements for astronomy. Their unique advantage arises from a fundamental property: they are affected only by the weakest of nature's forces (but for gravity) and are therefore essentially unabsorbed as they travel cosmological distances between their origin and us.

Where are they coming from?

From what we know today, a majority of the neutrinos floating around were born around 15 billions years ago, soon after the birth of the universe. Since this time, the universe has continuously expanded and cooled, and neutrinos have just kept on going. Theoretically, there are now so many neutrinos that they constitute a cosmic background radiation whose temperature is 1.9 degree Kelvin (-271.2 degree Celsius). Other neutrinos are constantly being produced from nuclear power stations, particle accelerators, nuclear bombs, general atmospheric phenomenae, and during the births, collisions, and deaths of stars, particularly the explosions of supernovae.

A little bit of history

The neutrino was first postulated in December, 1930 by Wolfgang Pauli to explain the energy spectrum of beta decays, the decay of a neutron into a proton and an electron. Pauli theorized that an undetected particle was carrying away the observed difference between the energy and angular momentum of the initial and final particles. Because of their "ghostly" properties, the first experimental detection of neutrinos had to wait until about 25 years after they were first discussed. In 1956 Clyde Cowan, Frederick Reines, F. B. Harrison, H. W. Kruse, and A. D. McGuire published the article "Detection of the Free Neutrino: a Confirmation" in Science, a result that was rewarded with the 1995 Nobel Prize.

In 1962 Leon M. Lederman, Melvin Schwartz and Jack Steinberger showed that more than one type of neutrino exists by first detecting interactions of the muon neutrino. When a third type of lepton, the tau, was discovered in 1975 at the Stanford Linear Accelerator, it too was expected to have an associated neutrino. First evidence for this third neutrino type came from the observation of missing energy and momentum in tau decays analogous to the beta decay that had led to the discovery of the neutrino in the first place. The first detection of actual tau neutrino interactions was announced in summer of 2000 by the DONUT collaboration at Fermilab, making it the latest particle of the Standard Model to have been directly observed.

A practical method for investigating neutrino masses (that is, flavour oscillation) was first suggested by Bruno Pontecorvo in 1957 using an analogy with the neutral kaon system; over the subsequent 10 years he developed the mathematical formalism and the modern formulation of vacuum oscillations. In 1985 Stanislav Mikheyev and Alexei Smirnov (expanding on 1978 work by Lincoln Wolfenstein) noted that flavour oscillations can be modified when neutrinos propagate through matter. This so-called MSW effect is important to understand neutrinos emitted by the Sun, which pass through its dense atmosphere on their way to detectors on Earth.

Just passing through!

It is the feeble interaction of neutrinos with matter that makes them uniquely valuable as astronomical messengers. Unlike photons or charged particles, neutrinos can emerge from deep inside their sources and travel across the universe without interference. They are not deflected by interstellar magnetic fields and are not absorbed by intervening matter. However, this same trait makes cosmic neutrinos extremely difficult to detect; immense instruments are required to find them in sufficient numbers to trace their origin.

Neutrinos can interact via the neutral current (involving the exchange of a Z boson) or charged current (involving the exchange of a W boson) weak interactions.

In a neutral current interaction, the neutrino leaves the detector after having transferred some of its energy and momentum to a target particle. All three neutrino flavors can participate regardless of the neutrino energy. However, no neutrino flavor information is left behind.

In a charged current interaction, the neutrino transforms into its partner lepton (electron, muon, or tau). However, if the neutrino does not have sufficient energy to create its heavier partner's mass, the charged current interaction is unavailable to it. Solar and reactor neutrinos have enough energy to create electrons. Most accelerator-based neutrino beams can also create muons, and a few can create taus. A detector which can distinguish among these leptons can reveal the flavor of the incident neutrino in a charged current interaction. Because the interaction involves the exchange of a charged boson, the target particle also changes character (e.g., neutron to proton).

Butterfly Nets For Ghosts

IceTop Tanks sit on the Antarctic surface (IceTop) to detect cosmic ray showers and other atmospheric phenomena. <br />Photo by:  D. Hubert/NSF
IceTop Tanks sit on the Antarctic surface (IceTop) to detect cosmic ray showers and other atmospheric phenomena.
Photo by: D. Hubert/NSF

Many of the outstanding mysteries of astrophysics may be hidden from our sight at all wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum because of absorption by matter and radiation between us and the source. For example, the hot dense regions that form the central engines of stars and galaxies are opaque to photons. In other cases, such as supernova remnants, gamma ray bursters, and active galaxies, all of which may involve compact objects or black holes at their cores, the precise origin of the high-energy photons emerging from their surface regions is uncertain. Therefore, data obtained through a variety of observational windows - and especially through direct observations with neutrinos - may be of cardinal importance. There are methods which have been developed to observe the elusive neutrino:

  1. Reines and Cowan used two targets containing a solution of cadmium chloride in water. Two scintillation detectors were placed next to the cadmium targets. Antineutrino charged current interactions with the protons in the water produced positrons and neutrons. The resulting positron annihilations with electrons created photons with an energy of about 0.5 MeV. Pairs of photons in coincidence could be detected by the two scintillation detectors above and below the target. The neutrons were captured by cadmium nuclei resulting in gamma rays of about 8 MeV that were detected a few microseconds after the photons from a positron annihilation event. Today, the much larger KamLAND detector uses similar techniques and 53 Japanese nuclear power plants to study neutrino oscillation.
  2. Chlorine detectors consist of a tank filled with carbon tetrachloride. A neutrino converts a chlorine atom into one of argon via the charged current interaction. The fluid is periodically purged with helium gas which would remove the argon. The helium is then cooled to separate out the argon. A chlorine detector in the former Homestake Mine near Lead, South Dakota, containing 520 short tons (470 metric tons) of fluid, made the first measurement of the deficit of electron neutrinos from the sun (see solar neutrino problem). A similar detector design uses a gallium to germanium transformation which is sensitive to lower energy neutrinos. This latter method is nicknamed the "Alsace-Lorraine" technique because of the reaction sequence (gallium-germanium-gallium) involved. These chemical detection methods are useful only for counting neutrinos; no neutrino direction or energy information is available.
  3. Detectors used in Lake Baikal
    Detectors used in Lake Baikal
  4. "Ring-imaging" detectors take advantage of the Cherenkov light produced by charged particles moving through a medium faster than the speed of light in that medium. In these detectors, a large volume of clear material (e.g., water or ice) is surrounded by light-sensitive photomultiplier tubes. A charged lepton produced with sufficient energy creates Cherenkov light which leaves a characteristic ring-like pattern of activity on the array of photomultiplier tubes. This pattern can be used to infer direction, energy, and (sometimes) flavor information about the incident neutrino.
    • Two water-filled detectors of this type (Kamiokande and IMB) recorded the neutrino burst from supernova 1987a. The largest such detector is the water-filled Super-Kamiokande.
    • IceCube and the AMANDA project take advantage of this method on a much larger scale by using ice instead of water; to facilitate this both are constructed in Antarctica at the south pole, the only place to find a chunk of ice big enough!
    • The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) uses heavy water. In addition to the neutrino interactions available in a regular water detector, the deuterium in the heavy water can be broken up by a neutrino. The resulting free neutron is subsequently captured, releasing a burst of gamma rays which are detected. All three neutrino flavors participate equally in this dissociation reaction.
    • The MiniBooNE detector employs pure mineral oil as its detection medium. Mineral oil is a natural scintillator, so charged particles without sufficient energy to produce Cherenkov light can still produce scintillation light. This allows low energy muons and protons, invisible in water, to be detected.
  5. Tracking calorimeters such as the MINOS detectors use alternating planes of absorber material and detector material. The absorber planes provide detector mass while the detector planes provide the tracking information. Steel is a popular absorber choice, being relatively dense and inexpensive and having the advantage that it can be magnetised.
  6. The Nova proposal suggests the use of particle board as a cheap way of getting a large amount of less dense mass. The active detector is often liquid or plastic scintillator, read out with photomultiplier tubes, although various kinds of ionisation chambers have also been used. Tracking calorimeters are only useful for high energy (GeV range) neutrinos. At these energies, neutral current interactions appear as a shower of hadronic debris and charged current interactions are identified by the presence of the charged lepton's track (possibly alongside some form of hadronic debris.) A muon produced in a charged current interaction leaves a long penetrating track and is easy to spot. The length of this muon track and its curvature in the magnetic field provide energy and charge ( μ+ versus μ- ) information. An electron in the detector produces an electromagnetic shower which can be distinguished from hadronic showers if the granularity of the active detector is small compared to the physical extent of the shower. Tau leptons decay essentially immediately to either pions or another charged lepton, and can't be observed directly in this kind of detector. (To directly observe taus, one typically looks for a kink in tracks in photographic emulsion.)
  7. Most neutrino experiments must address the flux of cosmic rays that bombard the earth's surface. The higher energy (>50 MeV or so) neutrino experiments often cover or surround the primary detector with a "veto" detector which reveals when a cosmic ray passes into the primary detector, allowing the corresponding activity in the primary detector to be ignored ("vetoed"). For lower energy experiments, the cosmic rays are not directly the problem. Instead, the spallation neutrons and radioisotopes produced by the cosmic rays may mimic the desired physics signals. For these experiments, the solution is to locate the detector deep underground so that the earth above can reduce the cosmic ray rate to tolerable levels.