Unraveling the Mysteries of a Fundamental Particle: Neutrino

Neutrino

By: Frank Close

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“Of all the things that make the universe, the commonest and weirdest are neutrinos. Able to travel through the earth like a bullet through a bank of fog, they are so shy that half a century after their discovery we still know less about them than all the other varieties of matter that have ever been seen.” Neutrinos are indeed intriguing particles—and their story in particle physics is undoubtedly a fascinating one. In Neutrino, the journey of these elusive particles is told in a detailed and exciting way. Frank Close, a knowledgeable theoretical physicist, fills pages with excellent, well-researched explanations of these particles, pulling together exemplary science, history, and literature into a single exceptional book.

 

Prior to reading Neutrino I had not read any other books by Frank Close; however, after reading Neutrino I have now made plans to read various other books by Frank Close, some of which were mentioned briefly in Neutrino. These books include Antimatter, Nothing: A Very Short Introduction, and The New Cosmic Onion: Quarks and the Nature of the Universe (rev. ed. 2006). Frank Close is currently a professor of physics at Exeter College, Oxford. For those of you who are interested in theoretical physics, Close studies elementary particles—more specifically, gluons and quarks. His educational background is quite an extensive one: Close received his first degree at St. Andrews, moved to the University of Oxford for doctoral studies, did postdoctoral research at Stanford, moved to CERN, and then took his current position at Oxford. Not only is Frank Close an acclaimed physicist, he also has a knack for explaining complex subjects to the public: in 1996 he won the Kelvin medal of the Institute of Physics and headed the European Council for Nuclear Research (CERN) (Conseil Europeen pour la Recherche Nucleaire) communication and public education services the following years (1997-2000).

 

Neutrino begins with several pages briefly describing neutrinos of all origins, followed by a discussion on the discovery of radioactivity. In the process of telling a seemingly simple story about the first scientists involved with radioactivity, important concepts such as alpha, beta, and gamma decay are also explained. Once the reader is well-versed in the relevant physics, a dive is taken into the true story of neutrinos—from the time Wolfgang Pauli first postulated the existence of the neutrino to its eventual detection, relevant historical events are explored. First we learn about the study of neutrinos before there was any proof of their existence. We then go on to learn about the eventual detection of a neutrino (actually, an antineutrino) from radioactivity on Earth. The significance of solar neutrinos is then explained, and the many difficulties encountered by those who were daring enough to experiment with solar neutrino detection are revealed. Questions such as “Why was detecting neutrinos from Earth such a difficult task?”, “How exactly were these particles—particles that have hardly any mass, a neutral electric charge, and travel at nearly the speed of light—ever detected?”, “Why did the calculations regarding the total number of solar neutrinos that should be detected on Earth never match up with the experimental result?” and “What are the unique properties of neutrinos?” are answered. Finally, near the end of the book, the relevance of the detection of 24 neutrinos from SN 1987a (a Supernova in 1987) is analyzed.

While reading Neutrino, I found the inclusion of background information to be an incredibly useful feature. This allowed the reader to dive into the incredibly complex topic of neutrinos with a great wealth of knowledge. This also prepared readers with little to no prior knowledge about particle physics to better understand neutrinos. For instance, the section on radioactivity (and, consequently, alpha, beta, and gamma decay) was invaluable. Furthermore, prior to the section of the book concerning solar neutrinos, the most common forms of nuclear fusion that power our Sun were reviewed. This allowed the reader to have a better understanding of the way in which solar neutrinos are created, which was necessary if the reader is ever to understand solar neutrinos in their entirety. Neutrino also provided feynman diagrams to assist in the explanation of several subjects and processes. These were incredibly helpful and also supplied an interesting challenge for those readers who were not incredibly well-versed in reading feynman diagrams.

Another excellent feature of Neutrino was the literature itself. Frank Close did an outstanding job of writing eloquently about a topic which is very difficult to write about in such a fashion. For instance, during the first few pages of Neutrino, Close used descriptive and figurative language techniques to draw the reader in, such as in the quote “Neutrinos can pass through the Sun almost as easily as through the earth. Within a few seconds of being born in the heart of the Sun, these hordes have escaped from the surface and poured into space”. There are those who believe that similes have no place in the world of particle physics; however, the line “Neutrinos are passing through our universe like mere spectators, as if we were not here. They are so shy that it is remarkable that we know that they exist at all” clearly shows otherwise.

Furthermore, I enjoyed the aura of mystery and that shrouded the story of the neutrino. Discoveries were made at unexpected times, scientists disappeared because of political instability, and many of the neutrino detectors of the past—some of which still function today—were not originally indented for neutrinos. Historical tidbits of information somewhat relevant to the history of neutrino research were dispersed here and there—not only making the book an enjoyable read, but also allowing the reader to fully understand just how neutrinos were first discovered and detected.

Additionally, I found the background information Close provided on scientists to be entertaining. It really made the story told throughout the various chapters of the book come to life. These segments of information are also useful in order for the reader to become more fully immersed with the scientists mentioned in Neutrino. For instance, Frank Close mentions that John Bahcall was interested mainly in tennis during his high school years. When Bahcall went to college—Berkeley—he was interested in studying philosophy, but during some fateful science courses discovered his love for physics which ultimately resulted in Bahcall performing extensive and difficult mathematical calculations to determine the number of solar electron neutrinos that would interact with a tank of chlorine on Earth. Frank Close mentions and follows Bahcall in Neutrino the way an author of a fictional piece would mention and follow an important character. Close even includes several direct quotes from Bahcall, one of my personal favorites being “ I feel like dancing, I’m so happy”.

The footnotes found throughout Neutrino were also an invaluable feature, explaining certain topics more in-depth and providing easy resources for those who wish to conduct further research. Another useful aspect of the book was the regular reference to other books the reader may enjoy reading (which was often done through the use of footnotes). This supplied fascinated readers with a list of possible books they may want to read in the future.

Overall, I found that reading Neutrino by Frank Close was a delightful experience. I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone with an interest in science and, more specifically, physics. Frank Close does a wonderful job of explaining neutrinos inside and out, for those who have a deep understanding of physics as well as for those who simply have a mild interest in the topic. I encourage you all to take a look at this book!

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