Reporter gets a chance to help
in the hunt for a particle whose existence is unproved. Finding it
could force physicists to rethink everything.
By K.C. Cole
Times Staff Writer
December 20, 2003
BATAVIA, Ill. — How do you catch a sterile neutrino?
It's one of the hardest experiments in physics: an attempt to pin down a
particle that leaves no tracks and interacts with nothing — a ghost as
hard to grasp as the chill that raises the hairs on your neck.
The only hint that this subatomic poltergeist even exists popped up in a
1995 experiment brushed off as almost certainly wrong by the vast
majority of physicists. If confirmed, however, the finding would shake
physics to its boots, introduce a whole new family of particles and
perhaps help explain why the universe is made of matter.
naturally, when Columbia University physicist Janet Conrad invited me
to help search for the particle at the world's premier physics lab, I
could hardly pass up the chance. The fact that I can hardly hang a
picture didn't faze Conrad a bit. It's just like cooking, she said.
"There's a recipe by which you put it together. It comes out, or it
Except that the kitchen in this case was Fermilab — a
6,800-acre complex of giant particle accelerators 45 miles west of
As someone who's spent dozens of years peering at
physics from the outside, here was an opportunity to get down and dirty
(literally, as it turned out) — an embedded journalist on the front
lines of physics.
Physics in the flesh is nothing so neat as the
crystalline world of equations, nothing so simple as the myth of Newton
getting bonked by an apple and — bingo! — beholding the secrets of
It is a world where everything's a
mess, where you can't see what you're looking for and what you can see
is harder to pick out than a soft breeze in a storm of uncertainty.
Even ordinary neutrinos are so insubstantial they can slip through a
light-year's worth of lead without jostling a single atom; a changing
cast of trillions occupies your body every second. Yet they are weighty
enough that they won two physicists the 2002 Nobel Prize: To everyone's
amazement, it turned out that two-thirds of the neutrinos expected to
make their way to Earth from the sun appeared to be missing, and the
reason they were not detected seems to be that they are morphing into
different forms en route.
According to prevailing models of
physics, neutrinos have no mass. But this shape-shifting means they
must have a tiny bit of heft — because in order to change identity,
they also have to change mass.
This smidgen of mass matters
because neutrinos outnumber all other particles a billion to one,
pouring out en masse from the nuclear furnaces of stars, radioactive
atoms in the earth and cosmic ray collisions in the atmosphere; they
outweigh a universe of stars.
Sterile neutrinos, if they
exist, are expected to weigh even more, enough to divert the streams of
galaxies that flow across the sky.
Alas, it's called "sterile"
for a reason. It's so innately unsociable that it couldn't communicate
its presence if it wanted to.
Tracking down such a
pathologically shy particle requires an exquisitely subtle (even
sneaky) experiment; lucky for me, it's going on at the coolest particle
physics laboratory in the world.
No matter how often I visit
Fermilab — officially Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory — it never
ceases to amaze me. Seeing the Fermilab high-rise suddenly sprout from
flat Illinois farmland seems as unlikely as coming across a cathedral
in a cornfield. In fact, Fermilab's founder, the late physicist and
artist Robert Wilson, talked of such accelerators as the "cathedrals of
For particle physicists, Fermilab is the Vatican.
To enter the site, you pass under an asymmetrical three-legged arch —
one of Wilson's many sculptures. Farmers still lease the land, growing
corn and beans. Huge machines designed to re-create the Big Bang burrow
almost invisibly under wildflowers and prairie grass — the playground
for hundreds of species of birds, beaver, weasel and mink.
a toast to the country's literal frontier, Wilson installed a herd of
buffalo. They usually stand near their barn looking bored.
long road into the heart of the lab traverses a serene landscape of
fields and ponds, ending at a reflecting pool presided over by a
phalanx of flags from dozens of countries. Behind looms the high-rise,
which Wilson modeled on Beauvais Cathedral in France. Instead of
stained glass, clear windowed walls swoop 16 stories high. A multilevel
atrium, lush with trees and hanging vines, encircles a giant brass
pendulum that seems to fall from the sky.
I've been coming here
for nearly 20 years but always as an outsider. This time, I am granted
a badge of belonging that lets me wander into the inner sanctum — the
main control room, the soul of the machine. Inside, technicians
choreograph the paths of protons as they loop their way around a
complex of accelerators with a precision that makes circus plate
twirlers look like amateurs.
By the time they reach the
four-mile round collider called the Tevatron, the protons are traveling
at nearly the speed of light. And when they crash, the concentrated
energy sets off fireworks of exotic particles — mini Big Bangs.
"I'm always amazed that the protons even get around the ring," Bonnie
Fleming, one of the physicists in our group, told me. "It's a Rube
Goldberg machine of astonishing complexity."
'A Gnat's Whisper'
can jam the works. One week, an air conditioner turning on caused a
power surge that threw off a magnet. The week before that, surges
caused by lightning shut down the accelerator for the entire weekend.
Our search for the sterile neutrino involves an even more delicate dance of particles.
Neutrinos are so elusive that the first physicist to detect them, in
1956, said it was like "listening to a gnat's whisper in a hurricane."
Over the next 40 years, a total of three kinds of neutrinos were
discovered: the electron neutrino, the muon neutrino and, three years
ago, the tau neutrino — each paired with a member of the electron
family (muons and taus are heavier versions of electrons).
an experiment at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1995 hinted that
there might be a fourth member of the family — the sterile neutrino. In
effect, the experiment found that there were three differences
between masses of neutrinos, which would require a total of four kinds
of particles — just as there are four spaces between the five fingers
of your hand. (To have a fifth space, you'd need a sixth finger.)
Alas, almost no one believed the experiment was right. The few
exceptions included physicist Bill Louis of Los Alamos and eventually
Conrad — the two co-leaders of the current experiment. When they set
about to confirm the Los Alamos findings, colleagues told them they
were ruining their careers.
Neither Conrad, with her girlish
Midwestern looks, nor the slim and soft-spoken Louis, appears much like
a troublemaker. But should the Los Alamos experiment be confirmed,
"then it turns the whole world of physics on its head," said Fermilab
physicist Joe Lykken. "Everyone is betting their homes and first-born
children that it's wrong."
Most neutrino experiments passively
wait for the particles to rain down (or up) from cosmic sources. But
the Los Alamos experiment created a controlled beam of neutrinos to
track what happens over a precise distance. So that's what Conrad's
experiment must do.
Our first order of business, then, is to
create a well-calibrated beam of neutrinos. If you want to know what
comes out of an experiment, you have to understand what goes in.
Like all particles produced at Fermilab, the process begins in a small
bottle of hydrogen buried inside what Conrad calls a "Frankenstein
machine." Long metal legs braceleted with fat silver doughnuts stand
several stories tall — R2D2 on steroids. I expect to see lightning
bolts fly out — and that's not so far from the truth. The beast
electrifies the hydrogen, then sends these "ions" off with a
From there, a magnet bends them into the
LINAC, or linear accelerator. Inside its shiny copper cavities, the
ions surf on radio waves, getting pushed to ever higher speeds.
The LINAC hands the beam to the Booster, which strips off electrons,
leaving naked protons. The small circular accelerator spins the protons
around 50,000 times, adding speed with every turn.
The noise in
the Booster tunnel is painfully loud: There's the thump of vacuum
pumps, the banging of metal as magnets turn on and a loud,
woodpecker-like "rat-a-tat-tat." Each "tat" is a "spill"; each spill
has 84 bunches; each bunch has 60 billion protons.
experiment gets five spills per second, delivered in short pulses,
straight from the Booster. Thus, its name: MiniBooNE, for "mini"
Booster Neutrino Experiment. With some 60 scientists from 12
institutions, it's the smallest experiment in high energy physics.
Most of the protons from the Booster go on to the Tevatron. Ours peel
off and crash into a beryllium target, creating unstable particles that
drift through a 150-foot sewer pipe where they disintegrate into a mix
of neutrinos and other particles. A highly magnetized horn focuses the
beam, rattling in tune to the same loud rat-a-tat-tat; the sound
follows the whole experiment like a heart beat.
At the end of the line, a steel wall absorbs everything that's left except neutrinos.
Conrad takes me across a muddy field, tracking the path of the beam
underground, until we come upon what she describes as a "home for
It is large mound of dirt with prairie grasses
sprouting on top like a bad haircut. A door leads to a room full of
computers and power sources — all marked with signs reading: "Danger!
High Voltage!" The muffled rat-a-tat-tat of particle bunches follows us
like the trill of some strange bird.
Under our feet is a sphere
filled with 800 tons of baby oil so clear you could see a 100-watt bulb
from half a mile away. If we're lucky, it's here that the sterile
neutrino will give itself away.
The Calling Card
Of course, you can't see a neutrino. But on rare occasions, neutrinos collide with other particles, leaving calling cards you can see. Electron neutrinos produce electrons; muon neutrinos produce muons.
When an incoming muon neutrino from our beam collides with a carbon atom
in the oil, it will produce a muon most of the time. But if the Los
Alamos experiment is right, a small fraction of the muon neutrinos will
change into electron neutrinos. These neutrinos aren't detected
directly. But the electrons they produce show up as rings of light that
are "seen" by 1,520 amber phototubes that line the tank like harvest
If enough electrons show up in the data, then the Los
Alamos experiment is confirmed. The reasons are mind-numbingly complex,
having to do with the relationship between neutrino mass and distance
traveled. But the bottom line is that if the electrons come where
MiniBooNE is looking for them, then there really are three gaps between
neutrino masses, meaning there really is a fourth neutrino — the
I'm still high on all this power and grandeur as Conrad
drives me to my work site. We pass a half dozen Wilson sculptures,
including an orange and blue "capacitor tree," a building that looks
like a pagoda, and another whose staircase is modeled on a double
strand of DNA. The road runs by a long string of power lines, which
Wilson had constructed in the shape of the symbol for pi.
It's disillusioning to say the least when I'm taken into a cement structure that looks vaguely like a prison.
Inside, catwalks circumnavigate a huge bare hangar several stories high.
The floor is covered with abandoned electronics racks. Everything is
orange and blue, Fermilab's colors.
In a small, dingy room off
to the side, I meet my mentor for the week, Len Bugel, a physics
teacher from Stratton Mountain School in Vermont who has been helping
out here over summers for nearly 10 years. His car has an "I love
neutrinos" bumper sticker.
I'm also working with a Columbia
University physics undergrad, Clarisse Kim, who confesses that she
hated science until her mind was changed by popular books and articles
— some, I'm delighted to discover — mine. Now, she's teaching me.
My first assignment doesn't seem very promising, either. Bugel brings
out some ratty old particle counters — clunky aluminum constructions
covered with torn black paper and peeling tape. "I retrieved them from
the dump," Bugel says.
In fact, nearly everything in MiniBooNE
has been used somewhere else before. "We built it out of junk," Conrad
says. "But all the junk works."
To ensure that our recycled
counter doesn't pick up any stray light, we tear off the old black
paper and tape, cut new paper and tape it on as well as we can. The
counter is a jumble of mismatched shapes, and I wind up using almost a
whole roll of tape just trying to secure the seams. The rubbery black
tape is hard to cut — and very sticky. Tar-like goo gets all over the
scissors, my hands, my hair.
Life in 'Prison'
Even this kindergarten-level task has me feeling like a klutz.
As Conrad leaves, she hands me some papers — my "cheat sheet," she calls
them. Actually, they're four single-spaced pages of marching orders.
The work includes "light-tighting" and "plateauing" counters, designing
"telescopes" and a bunch of other stuff that doesn't make any sense.
Late that afternoon, I sit through a talk on a subject I thought I
understood well — how cosmic rays from space produce showers of
particles that turn up as false signals in our experiment. But even
though the lecture is for undergraduates, most goes over my head.
Conrad tries to console me by pointing out that the other students have
already had a dozen lectures, and so can speak the language of
"hodoscopes" and "paw-plots," "Monte Carlos" and "Michel packages."
It's a good thing I have Bugel as a guide. Back at our "prison" the next
day, he shows me how to test whether our particle counters are working
This scut work is more important than it seems:
MiniBooNE has to account for every muon and every electron produced
inside the tank. But anything that comes from outside the tank is
potentially confusing "background," or "yuck," as Conrad calls it. A
separate shell of phototubes lines the tank, creating a "veto" region
that keeps track of muons leaking in from the outside. That way, they
can be subtracted from the data.
But how can we know that the veto counts all the interlopers?
The only way to be sure is to lay down extra counters below the tank.
Inside of each of our junkyard counters is a large square of plastic
infused with fluorescent material that gives off light when hit by a
muon. The phototube turns the light into electrical signals.
Bugel mixes five-minute epoxy to glue on the phototube, and we untangle
a knot of red and green wires (red for high voltage going in; green for
signals coming out). We get a sharp peak on the oscilloscope,
suggesting that muons are raining through the ceiling.
I may flunk undergraduate physics, but I'm OK at paper and tape. When
it's time to test the next counter, I get to mix the epoxy.
Still, the work is terminally frustrating.
We glue on a phototube only to realize that a metal sleeve that protects
the seam from stray light doesn't fit. We have to take off the tube,
get off the glue. But someone has taken the alcohol. Someone also has
taken the paper towels.
We manage to peel off the glue and try
again. This works, but this time our signal isn't nice and sharp. After
ruling out problems with cables, connectors and power supply, Kim
decides the phototube must be bad.
We untape everything, but now
the glue has set. Kim patiently chips away with a single edged razor,
and predictably winds up with a nasty cut. We have first blood.
We find another sleeve and start again from scratch.
Each counter requires the same drill. And then we need to test them
again — this time stacked in pairs. To get accurate readings, we need
cords of the same length, so Bugel scrounges for two 16-nanosecond
cables. (Length is measured in the number of seconds it takes light to
Channel One (from one counter) is counting fine, but Channel Two (from the other) isn't. Now what?
We take everything apart and start all over again.
I complain to Fleming about how slow things are going. She's
surprisingly sympathetic, given that she herself had to calibrate all
1,520 MiniBooNE phototubes. "In a normal job, you might say, 'I worked
all day and didn't accomplish anything.' In this job, you say, 'I
worked all day and took a step backwards.' "
she says, is what takes up most of your time. "And it's not like you
can call somebody in to fix it. You're the person who has to fix it."
This is nothing like my kitchen, where an occasional oops might topple a
souffle. Here, whether or not we find the sterile neutrino will turn on
these tiny details — tape and phototubes and glue.
can't afford to miss a thing when you're looking for a needle in a
haystack, and this is a whole lot harder. "You can get rid of 98% of
the hay, but everything you're left with looks just like needles,"
Conrad says when I join her a few days later for her Sunday 8-to-4
For every "real" electron signal, 100,000 are produced
from cosmic rays, and the only way to sort them out is to match the
timing of the outgoing signal with the incoming pulses of particles —
All this activity is monitored in the
computer-packed MiniBooNE control room on the 10th floor of the
high-rise. Every two hours, Conrad checks all systems, entering
everything into an electronic log. A little red heart means all is
well. A line across the heart means trouble.
As we trek back out
to the Teletubby mound for the once-a-shift site check, I'm surprised
to learn that at least some potential troublemakers are familiar. "You
never know what animals are going to get in there," Conrad says. "The
most important thing you do is listen and smell."
the oil level in the tank, looks for leaks, studies the banks of
computers. She checks the amount of current going to each phototube,
the readings for temperature and humidity for the last 24 hours. She
checks the lasers that flash six times a second to make sure the
phototubes are working properly.
"It's so easy to make a
mistake," says Louis, listing just a few of the ways: There could be a
bug in the software, a glitch in the electronics or background noise
that you forgot about. "You want to look under every rock and see if
there's a scorpion under it," he says.
Even if the experiment
performs perfectly, there will always be some uncertainty about what is
needles, what is hay. The best you can do is learn to recognize the hay
as best you can and gather enough data for solid statistics. It's
somewhat like flipping a coin. If you get heads 10 times out of 10
throws, it could easily be a fluke. But if you flip a million coins and
get a million heads, you've stumbled on something truly weird.
The need for good statistics explains why MiniBooNE's results won't be
known for several years. "Maybe it's a little like falling in love,"
says Conrad, who is married to a physicist. "It's slow steps forward to
the point where you're actually confident."
MiniBooNE is under a
special onus because the implications of a sterile neutrino are so big,
and also because so many people are so skeptical. "The more significant
the result, the more proofs required," Louis says.
almost two weeks to test and calibrate Kim's counters. But finally, our
big day comes. Bugel has gotten all the counters into the MiniBooNE
detector pit. So along with Louis, we go down to take a look. And since
the pit is an ODH (oxygen deficiency hazard), we first have to sign a
book and call the Fermilab fire department to let them know we're going
down; one person has to stay above — just in case. (In training, they
tell us the most dangerous thing you can do is go down to rescue a
Hazards lurk everywhere.
A sign hangs on
the chain blocking the metal hatchway: "Danger! Confined Space. Keep
Out." Kim pulls up a rickety ladder, and we descend into the belly of
the beast on grilled metal stairs. The staircase curls around the stark
white tank, which looks like an enormous soccer ball suspended on fat
legs. It's dark and spooky. There are more "Danger" signs below.
Playing with big machines is nothing like sitting at a desk diddling
with equations. Compressed gas cylinders can "become torpedoes," they
warn in safety training; magnets can make projectiles of tools.
Our counters are now lying under the tank, and we're supposed to connect
them to the power sources and readouts in the room above.
our 16-nanosecond cables won't reach. We get longer cables only to find
that they won't fit through the hole in the floor. The hole gets
enlarged, but longer cables mean longer light travel time, which
I now understand why you see clots of
construction workers on the street, seemingly doing nothing: I imagine
them waiting for cables to be cut, holes enlarged, equipment
Suddenly, Kim's oxygen monitor starts beeping,
flashing red lights. Are we all going to pass out? We scramble upstairs
— only to find out she had her finger over the air intake valve. (We
later discover that the monitor also goes off in the high-rise
So much worry and work to tease out a probably nonexistent ghost. It's hard not to wonder why physicists bother.
One reason, says Fermilab's John Beacom, is that there will be no
progress in neutrino physics until the results of the Los Alamos
experiment are clarified. "[It's] going to be clanking down the halls
of neutrino physics forever until it's put to rest."
reason is that a fourth neutrino could force physicists to rethink
everything from the mechanics of the Big Bang to the creation of
elements. It is so odd that it may even have a different origin than
the other neutrinos. Perhaps, says Lykken, it somehow arises from
extra, hidden, dimensions.
"The discovery of sterile neutrinos would be an even bigger surprise than the discovery that neutrinos have mass," he said.
And the fact that neutrinos are overall oddballs (it is the only
particle that twists exclusively to the left, for example) leads
physicists to think they might be the key to other fundamental
mysteries: Is the fact that the universe is made of matter when
antimatter should be present in equal amounts due to a similar cosmic
Even if there's no signal whatsoever — say, if the Los
Alamos experiment was wrong — MiniBooNE is still considered a crucial
experiment, because understanding what doesn't exist is every bit as
important as understanding what does.
"It's like chasing a
quarry into a corner," Conrad says. "If we kill [the Los Alamos
experiment], we'll be heroes. And if we find sterile neutrinos, then
we're really heroes. Either way, we've made a big step forward."
I've got just two days left, and one more pair of counters to build.
Bugel hands me a plastic bucket and says: "Let's go shopping!"
Down on the concrete floor of the huge central cavern in our orange and
blue lab, we ransack boxes for screws, nuts, connectors. Bugel has
already cut green heavy-metal support struts to the lengths we'll need.
Putting them together makes short work of fingernails. Experiments
depend as much on sweat and blood as magnets and cable. I learn a
lesson that's apparently well-known in body shops (one likely to come
in handy at home): "Bang to fit; paint to hide." We do a lot of banging
to fit, but since this construction will sit underground, we don't have
By the next day, Conrad has sent me a photo of our
clunky green construction sitting in place underground beside the
proton beam. I feel like a proud mama. I've added one small piece to a
mosaic that might help solve a cosmic-scale puzzle.
At the end
of the day, even the most elaborate experiment is made up of a lot of
little nothings that add up to something grand.
A lot like the neutrino itself.
Before saying goodbyes, I rollerblade one last time around the Tevatron
along a river of cooling water graced by Wilson's fanciful fountains.
The warm water attracts a blue heron.
last stop is the tiny pioneer cemetery where Robert Wilson was buried
in 2000. The other gravestones all date from the 1800s.
Standing by Wilson's plot, I can almost reach out and touch the high
summer corn. Not far away, reddish baby buffalo stumble about on
still-wobbly legs. In the distance, Wilson's cathedral stands alone,
beseeching the sky for answers.
And deep underground, the sterile neutrino is (perhaps) preparing to stage an appearance.