Saturday, October 01, 2011

Why Neutrinos are Important

I recently got a note from a good friend that reads: What is a neutrino and what does it mean to us everyday people? This note is due to the recent media coverage of the result coming out of CERN that shows (perhaps) neutrinos going faster than light which is expressly (and sternly) forbidden by Einsteinian relativity. So in answer to the question. . .

Like any human endeavor the news and fine points of that endeavor are always of more interest to those who spend their lives doing such things. I’m sure there are HUGE happenings in the etymological world on the origins of silent letters (I blame the French) but I’ll not notice nor care. However faster than light neutrinos might be on a different scale.

The structure of our material world is based on the Standard Model of how very fundamental particles (quarks, electrons and neutrinos) behave. That now well established model requires the use of Einstein’s relativity and so faster than light neutrinos would throw quite a large monkey wrench into the works. (note that a professor at good old Indiana U. has worked out an alternative to the Standard Model where faster than light particles are allowed.) So, do neutrinos affect your world? Yes and no, right?

From a strictly physical standpoint neutrinos hardly affect anything! Billions and billions of these little guys are streaming to and through the earth each second from the sun. Almost all of them go right through the entire planet. That’s how weakly they interact with matter. The fact that these guys exist at all and that we CAN detect them by being very clever monkeys is in itself a fascinating thing. From a historical standpoint I’m sure there were people in the 1920’s who wondered what this crazy quantum mechanics stuff meant to them and then a few years later it is that very quantum mechanics that guides our invention of the myriad of silicon devices of which we’ve become so fond. So you never want to be the one to say, “What good is all this. Shouldn’t we spend our money more wisely”. You just never know where pure research leads so you do want to support it and give it free rein.

In keeping with the theme of this blog, I watched the talk that was streamed out of CERN where the lead investigator presented the findings of the faster than light neutrinos. It was so refreshing to see the enormous lengths they went to to eliminate sources of error. How careful they must tread to make any sort of claim. How reasonable everyone was about the presentation whether they agreed or not. In fact the guy NEVER actually claimed the neutrinos are going faster than light. He's saying that they have a result with faster than light neutrinos that they cannot explain. They're basically asking for help and they are about to get it as other labs (Fermilab for one) try to duplicate the findings or sort out their errors. In other words I enjoyed the reasonableness of it all and the complete absence of shrieking or claims of magic.

Finally, from a philosophical/sociological point of view I would just choose a society where the discussion of neutrinos, extra solar planets, relativity, (and silent letters!), etc are all valued and supported just like I prefer to live in a society that supports opera even though I’m probably never going to go (can’t stand the soprano!). I rail against people who say such things as, “Why do I have to pay for the library? I never use it”. You can still CHOOSE to live in a society where we have libraries. It is the big things like libraries, Fermi Lab, or national parks that we can choose to value via our government and our taxes.

So, finally, 'Yes Rebecca - there is a neutrino and it IS important!

1 comment:

Sailor Sue said...

Well said, Mr. Science.