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David Schmitz | Fermilab | USA

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Subatomic particles as Hollywood villains

I couldn’t help it. At $5.50 for a matinee showing, I just had to hear it for myself. I recently went to see the newest Armageddon thriller to hit the big screen, 2012. I couldn’t resist because of this New York Times article about movie director Roland Emmerich and his tendency to destroy the world in his movies (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow). In particular, the article explains that in 2012 the earth tears itself apart when

A monster solar flare shoots invisible neutrinos into the earth’s core, cooking it like a Hot Pocket.

You have to love the Hot Pocket reference, but what drew me to see the movie was, of course, the neutrino as Hollywood star.

Sure enough, the film begins with an American scientist visiting a solar neutrino experiment located in a deep underground cavern in India.  After being told by the physicist running the detector about the increases in rate they have witnessed recently (I think he said a factor of two increase in neutrino interactions in the detector, but I’m not positive), they opened the hatch on top of the detector and, sure enough, the liquid inside was boiling. Oh, wow.

I also recently saw Angels and Demons since it came out on video.  In A&D, of course, as I blogged about forever ago, a small canister of antimatter is used as a weapon to threaten the Vatican City.   In that post, I talked about the antimatter we produce everyday here at Fermilab and how it compares to the claims in the movie.


Picture of the Sun using a "neutrino camera", the giant Super-Kamiokande neutrino detector in Japan.

So, how accurate is the science of 2012?  Well, not very, I’m afraid.  First, it is absolutely true that the Sun produces tremendous numbers of neutrinos and that many of them hit the Earth.  A common statistic to set the scale is that trillions of neutrinos from the Sun pass through the nail on your pinkie finger (about 1 sq. cm.) every second!  That’s a lot of neutrinos, but the key is that they pass right through.  And most of them pass right through the Earth’s core as well like it isn’t even there, moving on toward distant reaches of the galaxy with little to impede their journey.

I said most pass right through, because a small fraction of the neutrinos from the Sun certainly do interact with materials on Earth and deposit tiny amounts of energy. If they didn’t, then we would have no way of knowing they were there. I know the energy deposited by an interacting neutrino is impressively tiny, but I became curious about the temperature change that might be caused by a neutrino from the Sun interacting at Earth – exactly how far is it from making water boil?

So here’s the simplistic calculation that I did. The Super-Kamiokande neutrino detector in Japan is an enormous tank that holds about 25,000 tons of water. When a neutrino interacts with a hydrogen or oxygen nucleus in the water, the interaction gives off light which is detected.  A neutrino from the sun typically contains around 10 MeV of energy.  MeV is just a unit of energy measurement and 10 MeV is equal to about 16E-13 joules – a tiny amount. So I made the simplifying assumption that all of the energy from the neutrino goes into heat energy in the water to estimate the temperature increase of the water in Super-Kamiokande due to a single neutrino interaction. I used the specific heat formula from an old physics textbook:

change in Temperature = [(energy added) / (specific heat of H2O) x (mass H2O)]

T = (16E-13 J) / [(4180 J/kg*K) x (25,000,000 kg)] = 1.5E-23 K = 1.5E-23 degrees Celsius

Wow, okay, so assuming I didn’t screw that up (an enormous assumption) that indicates that each neutrino interaction increases the temperature of the water by about a 100 billionth of a trillionth of a degree. I think Super-Kamiokande sees about 4,000 solar neutrino events per year. So assuming no heat is dissipated (but it is), that’s an increase by 6E-20 degrees Celsius a year (0.00000000000000000006 C). You can see that it will take a whole lot more than a doubling of the solar neutrino rate to make a measurable change in the temperature of the detector, much less make water boil!  I’m pretty sure we’re safe from this particular form of Armageddon.

I think seeing major players from our theories of fundamental physics, like neutrinos and antimatter, show up on the big screen is pretty fun. Its true that the science of these movie plots is usually far from accurate, but if it gets anyone asking questions like “Is antimatter real?”, or “What are neutrinos and do they really come from the Sun?”, then I’m not inclined to complain too loudly.  Its interesting that, in these examples at least, the particles are all a threat to humans, but I suppose that’s Hollywood.  For now, I’m inclined to keep thinking that “all press is good press”.  Anyone know of a movie where subatomic particles magically save the world?

  • Zoe Louise Matthews


    Thanks so much for this! I saw the trailers and was very curious about what they would have as the cause of the end of the world, I had no idea they were blaming neutrinos! 🙂 I heard about some religious premonition about the world ending in 2012, quite alot of anti-LHC, mini-black-hole-fearing oddities on youtube told me that CERN would be the cause.

    As for world-saving particles, I think there should be a movie about the origin of the CKM matrix – some super hero saves the universe from total annihilation? Or a space explorer “finds” all the missing antimatter in a big anti-cave, where a villain is hoarding it ready for the destruction of the universe? 😉

  • jondoe

    nice! 🙂

    but I think that in the movie it is said that the neutrinos are changing to another particle, or one sentence in that sens. Kind of oscillation into a villain neutrino, strongly interacting, making the water boil? 🙂

  • Zoe Louise Matthews

    Jondoe: Fantastic. Was the villain neutrino a seesaw-style supermassive one? 😀 You have no idea how much I hope there’s a supermassive neutrino in our universe! It makes so much sense! 🙂

  • Tim Nicholls


    Great post!

    I think you’ve got your units a bit wrong – the volume of the SuperK detector is about 50,000 cubic metres so contains about 50,000 metric tonnes of water. The fiducial volume (i.e within which neutrino events are measured) is 25,000 metric tonnes, not kilograms, so the temperature rise is a thousand times lower than you calculate! So it’s even less likely to boil, even when T2K starts firing a beam of neutrinos at it from the other side of Japan early next year!

    Tim (A member of the T2K collaboration)

  • David Schmitz

    Thanks everybody for the great comments. Tim, thanks for catching my units problem. 25 kilo*tons*! Important difference. Oops.

    I updated the post to use 25 kt, so still the fiducial volume. If that’s the volume that sees the ~4k solar neutrinos, the other 25 kt would see another 4k events, so I think the total temp increase should be about right.

    Oh no, 2012 discovered a new particle, and I somehow missed it!? Now I will definitely have to look for the DVD when it comes out.

    And Zoe, I think you are really on to something 🙂 We need to get started on a screen play! Save our poor particles’ reputations 😉

    thanks again everybody,

  • SRT

    Do you remember the PRL article from 1996 regarding the hypothesis that stellar collapse neutrino “storms” may have resulted in cancer in large volume animals (e.g. dinosaurs)? Here is the link:


    A non-thermal mechanism where the impact of the neutrinos is amplified by the biological process of cell division…

  • SRT
  • SRT

    It won’t let me put the link in so here is the abstract:

    J. I. Collar
    Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina 29208

    Received 13 April 1995

    Massive stars in their final stages of collapse radiate most of their binding energy in the form of MeV neutrinos. The recoil atoms that they produce in elastic scattering off nuclei in organic tissue create radiation damage which is highly effective in the production of irreparable DNA harm, leading to cellular mutation, neoplasia, and oncogenesis. Using a conventional model of the galaxy and of the collapse mechanism, the periodicity of nearby stellar collapses and the radiation dose are calculated. The possible contribution of this process to the paleontological record of mass extinctions is examined.

    © 1996 The American Physical Society

  • Dude, I can’t believe you paid for that. You know that only encourages them to make more!
    (Now I’ve gotta go grab me a hot pocket.)

  • Crae Tate

    I’ll take a cheese and pepperoni hot pocket, Morgan. Dave, would you reoommend seeing this even if the premise is suspect?

  • Graham

    Anyone know of a movie where subatomic particles magically save the world?

    The Incredible Hulk
    The Watchmen