Historically, the study of beta decay provided the first physical evidence of the neutrino. In 1911 Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn performed an experiment that showed that the energies of electrons emitted by beta decay had a continuous rather than discrete spectrum. This was in apparent contradiction to the law of conservation of energy, as it appeared that energy was lost in the beta decay process. A second problem was that the spin of the Nitrogen-14 atom was 1, in contradiction to the Rutherford prediction of ½. In a famous letter written in 1930 Wolfgang Pauli suggested that in addition to electrons and protons atoms also contained an extremely light neutral particle which he called the neutron. He suggested that this “neutron” was also emitted during beta decay and had simply not yet been observed:
Dear Radioactive Ladies and Gentlemen,
As the bearer of these lines, to whom I graciously ask you to listen, will explain to you in more detail, how because of the “wrong” statistics of the N and Li6 nuclei and the continuous beta spectrum, I have hit upon a deseperate remedy to save the “exchange theorem” of statistics and the law of conservation of energy. Namely, the possibility that there could exist in the nuclei electrically neutral particles, that I wish to call neutrons, which have spin ½ and obey the exclusion principle and which further differ from light quanta in that they do not travel with the velocity of light. The mass of the neutrons should be of the same order of magnitude as the electron mass and in any event not larger than 0.01 proton masses > The continuous beta spectrum would then become understandable by the assumption that in beta decay a neutron is emitted in addition to the electron such that the sum of the energies of the neutron and the electron is constant…
I agree that my remedy could seem incredible because one should have seen those neutrons very earlier if they really exist. But only the one who dare can win and the difficult situation, due to the continuous structure of the beta spectrum, is lighted by a remark of my honoured predecessor, Mr Debye, who told me recently in Bruxelles: “Oh, It’s well better not to think to this at all, like new taxes”. From now on, every solution to the issue must be discussed. Thus, dear radioactive people, look and judge. Unfortunately, I cannot appear in Tubingen personally since I am indispensable here in Zurich because of a ball on the night of 6/7 December. With my best regards to you, and also to Mr Back.
Your humble servant
In 1931 Enrico Fermi renamed Pauli’s “neutron” to neutrino as a word play on neutrone, the Italian name of the neutron. (Neutrone in Italian means big and neutral, and neutrino means small and neutral.)