So, the Nobel Prize in Physics 2015 has been announced. To much surprise of many (including the author), it was awarded jointly to Takaaki Kajita and Arthur B. McDonald “for the discovery of neutrino oscillations, which shows that neutrinos have mass.” Well deserved Nobel Prize for a fantastic discovery.
What is this Nobel prize all about? Some years ago (circa 1997) there were a couple of “deficit” problems in physics. First, it appeared that the detected number of (electron) neutrinos coming form the Sun was measured to be less than expected. This could be explained in a number of ways. First, neutrino could oscillate — that is, neutrinos produced as electron neutrinos in nuclear reactions in the Sun could turn into muon or tau neutrinos and thus not be detected by existing experiments, which were sensitive to electron neutrinos. This was the most exciting possibility that ultimately turned out to be correct! But it was by far not the only one! For example, one could say that the Standard Solar Model (SSM) predicted the fluxes wrong — after all, the flux of solar neutrinos is proportional to core temperature to a very high power (~T25 for 8B neutrinos, for example). So it is reasonable to say that neutrino flux is not so well known because the temperature is not well measured (this might be disputed by solar physicists). Or something more exotic could happen — like the fact that neutrinos could have large magnetic moment and thus change its helicity while propagating in the Sun to turn into a right-handed neutrino that is sterile.
The solution to this is rather ingenious — measure neutrino flux in two ways — sensitive to neutrino flavor (using “charged current (CC) interactions”) and insensitive to neutrino flavor (using “neutral current (NC) interactions”)! Choosing heavy water — which contains deuterium — is then ideal for this detection. This is exactly what SNO collaboration, led by A. McDonald did
As it turned out, the NC flux was exactly what SSM predicted, while the CC flux was smaller. Hence the conclusion that electron neutrinos would oscillate into other types of neutrinos!
Another “deficit problem” was associated with the ratio of “atmospheric” muon and electron neutrinos. Cosmic rays hit Earth’s atmosphere and create pions that subsequently decay into muons and muon neutrinos. Muons would also eventually decay, mainly into an electron, muon (anti)neutrino and an electron neutrino, as
As can be seen from the above figure, one would expect to have 2 muon-flavored neutrinos per one electron-flavored one.
This is not what Super K experiment (T. Kajita) saw — the ratio really changed with angle — that is, the ratio of neutrino fluxes from above would differ substantially from the ratio from below (this would describe neutrinos that went through the Earth and then got into the detector). The solution was again neutrino oscillations – this time, muon neutrinos oscillated into the tau ones.
The presence of neutrino oscillations imply that they have (tiny) masses — something that is not predicted by minimal Standard Model. So one can say that this is the first indication of physics beyond the Standard Model. And this is very exciting.
I think it is interesting to note that this Nobel prize might help the situation with funding of US particle physics research (if anything can help…). It shows that physics has not ended with the discovery of the Higgs boson — and Fermilab might be on the right track to uncover other secrets of the Universe.