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Posts Tagged ‘neutrinos’

Neutrinos have mass but are they their own antimatter partner?

The fortunate thing about international flights in and out of the US is that, likely, it is long enough for me to slip in a quick post. Today’s article is about the search for Majorana neutrinos.


Mexico City Airport. Credit: R. Ruiz

Neutrinos are a class of elementary particles that do not carry a color charge or electric charge, meaning that they do not interact with the strong nuclear force or electromagnetism. Though they are known to possess mass, their masses are so small experimentalists have not yet measured them. We are certain that they have mass because of neutrino oscillation data.

Words. Credit: Particle Zoo

Neutrinos in their mass eigenstates, which are a combination of their flavor (orange, yellow, red) eigenstates. Credit: Particle Zoo

This history of neutrinos is rich. They were first proposed as a solution to the mystery of nuclear beta (β)-decay, a type of radioactive decay. Radioactive decay is the spontaneous and random disintegration of an unstable nucleus in an atom into two or more longer-lived, or more stable, nuclei. A free neutron (which is made up of two down-type quarks, one up-type quark, and lots of gluons holding everything together) is unstable and will eventually undergo radioactive decay. Its half-life is about 15 minutes, meaning that given a pile of free neutrons, roughly half will decay by the end of those 15 minutes. A neutron in a bound system, for example in a nucleus, is much more stable. When a neutron decays, a down quark will become an up-type quark by radiating a (virtual) W- boson. Two up-type quarks and a down-type quark are what make a proton, so when a neutron decays, it turns into a proton and a (virtual) W- boson. Due to conservation of energy, the boson is very restricted into what it can decay; the only choice is an electron and an antineutrino (the antiparticle partner of a neutrino). The image below represents how neutrons decay.

Since neutrinos are so light, and interact very weakly with other matter, when neutron decay was first observed, only the outgoing electron and proton (trapped inside of a nucleus) were ever observed. As electrons were historically called β-rays (β as in the Greek letter beta), this type of process is known as nuclear beta-decay (or β-decay). Observing only the outgoing electron and transmuted atom but not the neutrino caused much confusion at first. The process

Nucleus A → Nucleus B + electron

predicts, by conservation of energy and linear momentum, that the electron carries the same fixed amount of energy in each and every decay. However, outgoing electrons in β-decay do not always have the same energy: very often they come out with little energy, but other times they come out with a lot of energy. The plot below is an example distribution of how often (vertical axis) an electron in β-decay will be emitted carrying away a particular amount of energy (horizontal axis).

Electron spectrum in beta decay: Number of electrons/beta-particles (vertical axis) versus energy/kinetic energy (KE) or electrons (horizontal axis). Credit: R. Church

Scientists at the time, including Wolfgang Pauli, noted that the distribution was similar to the decay process where a nucleus decays into three particles instead of two:

Nucleus A → Nucleus B + electron + a third particle.

Furthermore, if the third particle had no mass, or at least an immeasurably small mass, then the energy spectrum of nuclear β-decay could be explained. This mysterious third particle is what we now call the neutrino.

One reason for neutrinos being so interesting is that they are chargeless. This is partially why neutrinos interact very weakly with other matter. However, since they carry no charge, they are actually nearly indistinguishable from their antiparticle partners. Antiparticles carry equal but opposite charges of their partners. For example: Antielectrons (or positrons) carry a +1 electric charge whereas the electron carries a -1 electric charge. Antiprotons carry a -1 electric charge were as protons carry a +1 electric charge. Etc. Neutrinos carry zero charge, so the charges of antineutrinos are still zero. Neutrinos and antineutrinos may in fact differ thanks to some charge that they both possess, but this has not been verified experimentally. Hence, it is possible that neutrinos and antineutrinos are actually the same particle. Such particles are called Majorana particles, named after the physicist Ettore Majorana, who first studied the possibility of neutrinos being their own antiparticles.

The Majorana nature of neutrinos is an open question in particle physics. We do not yet know the answer, but this possibility is actively being studied. One consequence of light Majorana neutrinos is the phenomenon called neutrinoless double β-decay (or 0νββ-decay). In the same spirit as nuclear β-decay (discussed above), double β-decay is when two β-decays occur simultaneously, releasing two electrons and two antineutrinos. Double β-decay proceeds through the following diagram (left):

Double beta decay (L) and neutrinoless double beta decay (R). Credit: CANDLES experiment

Neutrinoless double β-decay is a special process that can only occur if neutrinos are Majorana. In this case, neutrinos and antineutrinos are the same and we can connect the two outgoing neutrino lines in the double β-decay diagram, as shown above. In 0νββ-decay, a neutrino/antineutrino is exchanged between the two decaying neutrons instead of escaping like the electrons.

Having only four particles in the final state for 0νββ-decay (two protons and two electrons) instead of six in double β-decay (two protons, two electrons, and two neutrinos) has an important effect on the kinematics, or motion, of the electrons, i.e., the energy and momentum distributions. In double β-decay:

Nucleus A → Nucleus B + electron + electrons + neutrino + neutrino

the two protons are so heavy compared to the energy released by the decaying neutrons that there is hardly any energy to give them a kick. So for the most part, the protons remain at rest. The neutrinos and electrons then shoot off in various directions and various energies. In neutrinoless double β-decay:

Nucleus A → Nucleus B + electron + electrons

since the remnant nucleus are still roughly at rest, the electron pair take away all the remaining energy allowed by energy conservation. There are no neutrinos to take energy away from the electrons and broaden their distribution. This difference between ββ-decay and 0νββ-decay is stark, particularly in the likelihood of how often (vertical axis) the electrons in β-decay will be emitted carrying away a particular amount of energy (horizontal axis). As seen below, the electron energy distribution in double β-decay is very wide and is centered around smaller energies, whereas the 0νββ-decay is very narrow and is peaked at the maximum of the 2νββ-decay curve.

For double beta decay (blue) and neutrinoless double beta decay (red peak), the electron spectrum in beta decay: Number of electrons/beta-particles (vertical axis) versus energy/kinetic energy (KE) or electrons (horizontal axis). Credit: COBRA experiment

Unfortunately, searches for 0νββ-decay have not yielded any evidence for Majorana neutrinos. This could be because neutrinos are not their own antiparticle, in which case we will never observe the decay. Alternatively, it could be the case that current experiments are simply not yet sensitive to how rarely 0νββ-decay occurs. The rate at which the decay occurs is proportional to the mass of the intermediate neutrino: a zero neutrino mass implies a zero 0νββ-decay rate.

Experiments such as KATRIN hope to measure the mass of neutrinos in the next coming years. If a mass measurement is obtained, it would be a very impressive and impacting result. Furthermore, definitive predictions for 0νββ-decay can be made, at which point the current generation of experiments, such as MAJORANA, COURE, and EXO will be in a mad dash for testing whether or not neutrinos are indeed their own antiparticle.


Lower view of CUORE Cryostat. Credit: CUORE Experiment


Inside view of CUORE Cryostat. Credit: CUORE Experiment

Happy Hunting and Happy Colliding,

Richard Ruiz (@BraveLittleMuon)

PS Much gratitude to Yury Malyshkin,  Susanne Mertens, Gastón Moreno, and Martti Nirkko for discussions and inspiration for this post. Cheers!

Update 2015 September 25: Photos of the Cryogenic Underground Observatory for Rare Events (CUORE) experiment have been added. Much appreciate to QD-er Laura Gladstone.


MicroBooNE sees first cosmic muons

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

This article appeared in Fermilab Today on Aug. 12, 2015.

This image shows the first cosmic ray event recorded in the MicroBooNE TPC on Aug. 6. Image: MicroBooNE

This image shows the first cosmic ray event recorded in the MicroBooNE TPC on Aug. 6. Image: MicroBooNE

A school bus-sized detector packed with 170 tons of liquid argon has seen its first particle footprints.

On Aug. 6, MicroBooNE, a liquid-argon time projection chamber, or LArTPC, recorded images of the tracks of cosmic muons, particles that shower down on Earth when cosmic rays collide with nuclei in our atmosphere.

“This is the first detector of this size and scale we’ve ever launched in the U.S. for use in a neutrino beam, so it’s a very important milestone for the future of neutrino physics,” said Sam Zeller, co-spokesperson for the MicroBooNE collaboration.

Picking up cosmic muons is just one brief stop during MicroBooNE’s expedition into particle physics. The centerpiece of the three detectors planned for Fermilab’s Short-Baseline Neutrino program, or SBN, MicroBooNE will pursue the much more elusive neutrino, taking data about this weakly interacting particle for about three years. When beam starts up in October, it will travel 470 meters and then traverse the liquid argon in MicroBooNE, where neutrino interactions will result in tracks that the detector can convert into precise three-dimensional images. Scientists will use these images to investigate anomalies seen in an earlier experiment called MiniBooNE, with the aim to determine whether the excess of low-energy events that MiniBooNE saw was due to a new source of background photons or if there could be additional types of neutrinos beyond the three established flavors.

One of MicroBooNE’s goals is to measure how often a neutrino that interacts with an argon atom will produce certain types of particles. A second goal is to conduct R&D for future large-scale LArTPCs. MicroBooNE will carry signals up to two and a half meters across the detector, the longest drift ever for a LArTPC in a neutrino beam. This requires a very high voltage and very pure liquid argon. It is also the first time a detector will operate with its electronics submerged in liquid argon on such a large scale. All of these characteristics will be important for future experiments such as the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment, or DUNE, which plans to use similar technology to probe neutrinos.

“The entire particle physics community worldwide has identified neutrino physics as one of the key lines of research that could help us understand better how to go beyond what we know now,” said Matt Toups, run coordinator and co-commissioner for MicroBooNE with Fermilab Scientist Bruce Baller. “Those questions that are driving the field, we hope to answer with a very large LArTPC detector.”

Another benefit of the experiment, Zeller said, is training the next generation of LArTPC experts for future programs and experiments. MicroBooNE is a collaborative effort of 25 institutions, with 55 students and postdocs working tirelessly to perfect the technology. Collaborators are keeping their eyes on the road toward the future of neutrino physics and liquid-argon technology.

“It’s been a long haul,” said Bonnie Fleming, MicroBooNE co-spokesperson. “Eight and a half years ago liquid argon was a total underdog. I used to joke that no one would sit next to me at the lunch table. And it’s a world of difference now. The field has chosen liquid argon as its future technology, and all eyes are on us to see if our detector will work.”

Ali Sundermier


This article appeared in Fermilab Today on Aug. 10, 2015.

The Fermilab Short-Baseline Neutrino program will use three detectors: SBND, MicroBooNE (shown here) and ICARUS. Photo: Reidar Hahn

The Fermilab Short-Baseline Neutrino program will use three detectors: SBND, MicroBooNE (shown here) and ICARUS. Photo: Reidar Hahn

In 1995, physicists working on the Liquid Scintillator Neutrino Detector, or LSND, at Los Alamos National Laboratory stumbled upon some curious results.

The experiment, whose goal was to investigate oscillations between the three different flavors of the elusive neutrino, saw evidence that there might be at least one additional flavor of neutrino lurking just out of reach. In 2002, an experiment at Fermilab called MiniBooNE started collecting data to explore this anomaly, but the results were inconclusive: some data seemed to refute the possibility of a fourth neutrino, but other data seemed to indicate particle interactions that couldn’t be explained with conventional three-neutrino models. The possibility of a mysterious, fourth neutrino remained alive.

“It’s a question that’s been first lingering with the anomalies from LSND and then MiniBooNE,” said Bonnie Fleming, co-spokesperson of a new neutrino experiment at Fermilab called MicroBooNE. “There’s now a worldwide campaign to address whether these short-baseline oscillations and hints from other experiments are indicating new physics.”

Scientists from Fermilab and more than 45 institutions around the world have teamed up to design a program to catch this hypothetical neutrino in the act. The program, called the Short-Baseline Neutrino (SBN) program, makes use of a trio of detectors positioned along one of Fermilab’s neutrino beams. Although there are other reactor and source-based experiments in the world that actively seek a fourth neutrino, also called a sterile neutrino, SBN is the only program that uses a particle accelerator to produce neutrinos and multiple neutrino detectors for this search.

“No one else is doing an experiment like this,” said Peter Wilson, coordinator for the SBN program. “There are no other experiments on this energy scale using the concept of a near detector and a far detector.”

Determining whether there are more than three neutrino flavors would affect how scientists interpret data from experiments like the planned Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment, which is expected to make transformative discoveries about neutrinos, and perhaps other aspects of the universe, in the future. Solving the mystery of the anomalies seen at LSND and MiniBooNE, however, will not be easy. Because the sterile neutrino would not interact through the weak nuclear force as the other three do (hence the name “sterile”), detecting this particle would be like chasing the shadow of a ghost.

It begins at the Fermilab Booster, where protons are accelerated to 8 GeV and smashed into a target, creating new particles. Charged particles are bent forward by a magnetic focusing device into a tunnel where most decay to produce muon neutrinos. The three detectors — named the Short-Baseline Near Detector, or SBND, MicroBooNE and ICARUS — will be spread out over a distance of 600 meters. SBND, 100 meters from the target, will take data close to the source to reduce systematic uncertainties by measuring the initial characteristics of the muon neutrino beam. Four hundred meters beyond the planned site for SBND is MicroBooNE, which is already installed. ICARUS will be located 110 meters past MicroBooNE. ICARUS is an existing detector from a previous experiment at the Italian INFN laboratory at Gran Sasso that is currently being refurbished at CERN. It will have a massive chamber holding 760 tons of liquid argon to beat down statistical uncertainties in the experiment.

All three of the detectors are time projection chambers, a type of detector that allows physicists to analyze particle collisions in three dimensions. For these particular TPCs, scientists use liquid argon because its relatively heavy mass ensures a higher rate of interactions.

MicroBooNE received its last fill of liquid argon in July and recently began taking data. Scientists are expecting to break ground on buildings for both ICARUS and SBND by this fall. In 2017, ICARUS will be fully refurbished and delivered to Fermilab. Scientists hope to complete building SBND that same year.

Since experimenters won’t be able to directly detect the sterile neutrino, they will search for clues in the trails of particles the three known neutrino flavors leave behind in the liquid argon after they interact. If the experiments, expected to begin running in 2018, see deviations in the expected neutrino oscillation pattern, scientists will know that they’re on the right track in their hunt for this fugitive particle. If not, they will be able to put the mystery of the sterile neutrino to rest.

“If we design a strong enough experiment, which I believe we have, then one of two things will happen when we start taking data,” said David Schmitz, co-spokesperson for SBND. “Either we will rule out the earlier hints, or we make, frankly, the most exciting discovery in particle physics in some time.”

Ali Sundermier


This article appeared in Fermilab Today on May 5, 2015.

Technicians John Cornele, Pat Healey and Skyler Sherwin have been crucial in preparing the LArIAT detector for beam. The liquid-argon-filled detector saw first beam on Thursday. Photo: Jen Raaf

Technicians John Cornele, Pat Healey and Skyler Sherwin have been crucial in preparing the LArIAT detector for beam. The liquid-argon-filled detector saw first beam on Thursday. Photo: Jen Raaf

Fermilab’s Test Beam Facility (FTBF) now runs a second beamline to provide particles for R&D experiments. The MCenter beamline came back to life last year after an eight-year slumber to join the facility’s other beamline, MTest.

On Thursday, April 30, accelerator operators began using the revived beamline to send particles to its first major experiment, Liquid Argon TPC in a Test Beam (LArIAT), which will help advance particle detector technologies for neutrino experiments.

The FTBF provides experiments with different types of particle beams with a range of energies. Its main purpose is the research and development of particle detectors. It is one of only two sites in the world that provides this service with high-energy hadrons, which are particles made of quarks. Since 2005, the FTBF, with its distinctive orange and blue corrugated-steel roof, has staged more than 50 experiments, conducted by scientists from more than 170 institutions in 30 countries.

“We’re very busy and fully subscribed,” said JJ Schmidt, deputy facility manager at FTBF. “The existence of two beams allows us to serve a broader class of experiments.”

Not only does the new beamline allow FTBF to serve a larger number of users, it also provides room for a greater diversity of experiments. While MTest is aimed at experiments with a turnover of about one to four weeks, MCenter caters to more long-term experiments like LArIAT that will last for months, or even years.

Beautiful tracks at first try
LArIAT is a liquid-argon time projection chamber. Charged particles traveling through the sea of liquid argon ionize the argon atoms, and an electric field causes liberated electrons to drift toward the detector readout. Different particles cause different amounts of ionization, allowing researchers to distinguish between particles such as pions, kaons and protons.

This plot shows LArIAT's first tracks: two views of a charged particle interacting inside the LArIAT detector, which is filled with liquid argon.

This plot shows LArIAT’s first tracks: two views of a charged particle interacting inside the LArIAT detector, which is filled with liquid argon.

The first spill of particles delivered to LArIAT led to immediate success. The detector recorded picture-perfect tracks of charged particles.

Like the test beam, LArIAT will act as a research and development vehicle for future projects. Because neutrinos can be studied only through the particles produced when they interact with material inside a particle detector, being able to reliably characterize these other particles is of great importance.

“This is going to be fantastic not only for LArIAT but all the neutrino experiments that will use its results,” said Jen Raaf, co-spokesperson for LArIAT.

LArIAT will run the test beam for 24 hours a day while experimenters take data. The first run will last about three months, after which the detector’s cryogenic system will undergo upgrades to prepare for longer follow-up runs.

“It’s great that we have a facility where a small experiment can take beam over a long term,” said Brian Rebel, a scientist involved in LArIAT.

About 75 people from 22 institutions from the United States, Europe and Japan work on this experiment.

“Most are young postdocs and Ph.D. students that are enthusiastically doing a great job,” said Flavio Cavanna, LArIAT co-spokesperson.

“It’s an exciting combination of many years of work by the Accelerator, Particle Physics, Neutrino and Scientific Computing divisions to have the capability to do research that is important for making this the premier neutrino laboratory in the world,” Schmidt said.

Diana Kwon


This article appeared in symmetry on April 22, 2015.

The world’s largest liquid-argon neutrino detector will help with the search for sterile neutrinos at Fermilab. Photo: INFN

The world’s largest liquid-argon neutrino detector will help with the search for sterile neutrinos at Fermilab. Photo: INFN

Mysterious particles called neutrinos seem to come in three varieties. However, peculiar findings in experiments over the past two decades make scientists wonder if a fourth is lurking just out of sight.

To help solve this mystery, a group of scientists spearheaded by Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia plans to bring ICARUS, the world’s largest liquid-argon neutrino detector, across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States. The detector is currently being refurbished at CERN, where it is the first beneficiary of a new test facility for neutrino detectors.

Neutrinos are some of the most abundant and yet also most mysterious particles in the universe. They have tiny masses, but no one is sure why—or where those masses come from. They interact so rarely that they can pass through the entire Earth as if it weren’t there. They oscillate from one type to another, so that even if you start out with one kind of neutrino, it might change to another kind by the time you detect it.

Many theories in particle physics predict the existence of a sterile neutrino, which would behave differently from the three known types of neutrino.

“Finding a fourth type of neutrinos would change the whole picture we’re trying to address with current and future experiments,” says Peter Wilson, a scientist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

The Program Advisory Committee at Fermilab recently endorsed a plan, managed by Wilson, to place a suite of three detectors in a neutrino beam at the laboratory to study neutrinos—and determine whether sterile neutrinos exist.

Over the last 20 years, experiments have seen clues pointing to the possible existence of sterile neutrinos. Their influence may have caused two different types of unexpected neutrino behavior seen at the Liquid Scintillator Neutrino Detector experiment at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the MiniBooNE experiment at Fermilab.

Both experiments saw indications that a surprisingly large number of neutrinos may be morphing from one kind to another a short distance from a neutrino source. The existence of a fourth type of neutrino could encourage this fast transition.

The new three-detector formation at Fermilab could provide the answer to this mystery.

In the suite of experiments, a 260-ton detector called Short Baseline Neutrino Detector will sit closest to the source of the beam, so close that it will be able to detect the neutrinos before they’ve had a chance to change from one type into another. This will give scientists a baseline to compare with results from the other two detectors. SBND is under construction by a team of scientists and engineers from universities in the United Kingdom, the United States and Switzerland, working with several national laboratories in Europe and the US.

The SBND detector will be filled with liquid argon, which gives off flashes of light when other particles pass through it.

“Liquid argon is an extremely exciting technology to make precision measurements with neutrinos,” says University of Manchester physicist Stefan Soldner-Rembold, who leads the UK project building a large section of the detector. “It’s the technology we’ll be using for the next 20 to 30 years of neutrino research.”

Farther from the beam will be the existing 170-ton MicroBooNE detector, which is complete and will begin operation at Fermilab this year. The MicroBooNE detector was designed to find out whether the excess of particles seen by MiniBooNE was caused by a new type of neutrino or a new type of background. Identifying either would have major implications for future neutrino experiments.

Finally, farthest from the beam would be a liquid-argon detector more than four times the size of MicroBooNE. The 760-ton detector was used in the ICARUS experiment, which studied neutrino oscillations at Gran Sasso Laboratory in Italy using a beam of neutrinos produced at CERN from 2010 to 2014.

Its original beam at CERN is not optimized for the next stage of the sterile neutrino search. “The Fermilab beamline is the only game in town for this type of experiment,” says physicist Steve Brice, deputy head of Fermilab’s Neutrino Division.

And the ICARUS detector “is the best detector in the world to detect this kind of particle,” says Alberto Scaramelli, the former technical director of Gran Sasso National Laboratory. “We should use it.”

Rubbia, who initiated construction of ICARUS and leads the ICARUS collaboration, proposed bringing the detector to Fermilab in August 2013. Since then, the ICARUS, MicroBooNE and SBND groups have banded together to create the current proposal. The updated plan received approval from the Fermilab Program Advisory Committee in February.

“The end product was really great because it went through the full scrutiny of three different collaborations,” says MicroBooNE co-leader Sam Zeller. “The detectors all have complementary strengths.”

In December, scientists shipped the ICARUS detector from the Gran Sasso laboratory to CERN, where it is currently undergoing upgrades. The three-detector short-baseline neutrino program at Fermilab is scheduled to begin operation in 2018.

Kathryn Jepsen


The dawn of DUNE

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

This article appeared in symmetry on March 25, 2015.

A powerful planned neutrino experiment gains new members, new leaders and a new name. Image: Fermilab

A powerful planned neutrino experiment gains new members, new leaders and a new name. Image: Fermilab

The neutrino experiment formerly known as LBNE has transformed. Since January, its collaboration has gained about 50 new member institutions, elected two new spokespersons and chosen a new name: Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment, or DUNE.

The proposed experiment will be the most powerful tool in the world for studying hard-to-catch particles called neutrinos. It will span 800 miles. It will start with a near detector and an intense beam of neutrinos produced at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois. It will end with a 10-kiloton far detector located underground in a laboratory at the Sanford Underground Research Facility in South Dakota. The distance between the two detectors will allow scientists to study how neutrinos change as they zip at close to the speed of light straight through the Earth.

“This will be the flagship experiment for particle physics hosted in the US,” says Jim Siegrist, associate director of high-energy physics for the US Department of Energy’s Office of Science. “It’s an exciting time for neutrino science and particle physics generally.”

In 2014, the Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel identified the experiment as a top priority for US particle physics. At the same time, it recommended the collaboration take a few steps back and invite more international participation in the planning process.

Physicist Sergio Bertolucci, director of research and scientific computing at CERN, took the helm of an executive board put together to expand the collaboration and organize the election of new spokespersons.

DUNE now includes scientists from 148 institutions in 23 countries. It will be the first large international project hosted by the US to be jointly overseen by outside agencies.

This month, the collaboration elected two new spokespersons: André Rubbia, a professor of physics at ETH Zurich, and Mark Thomson, a professor of physics at the University of Cambridge. One will serve as spokesperson for two years and the other for three to provide continuity in leadership.

Rubbia got started with neutrino research as a member of the NOMAD experiment at CERN in the ’90s. More recently he was a part of LAGUNA-LBNO, a collaboration that was working toward a long-baseline experiment in Europe. Thomson has a long-term involvement in US-based underground and neutrino physics. He is the DUNE principle investigator for the UK.

Scientists are coming together to study neutrinos, rarely interacting particles that constantly stream through the Earth but are not well understood. They come in three types and oscillate, or change from type to type, as they travel long distances. They have tiny, unexplained masses. Neutrinos could hold clues about how the universe began and why matter greatly outnumbers antimatter, allowing us to exist.

“The science is what drives us,” Rubbia says. “We’re at the point where the next generation of experiments is going to address the mystery of neutrino oscillations. It’s a unique moment.”

Scientists hope to begin installation of the DUNE far detector by 2021. “Everybody involved is pushing hard to see this project happen as soon as possible,” Thomson says.

Jennifer Huber and Kathryn Jepsen

Image: Fermilab

Image: Fermilab


Expanding the cosmic search

Friday, March 20th, 2015

This article appeared in Fermilab Today on March 20, 2015.

The South Pole Telescope scans the skies during a South Pole winter. Photo: Jason Gallicchio, University of Chicago

The South Pole Telescope scans the skies during a South Pole winter. Photo: Jason Gallicchio, University of Chicago

Down at the South Pole, where temperatures drop below negative 100 degrees Fahrenheit and darkness blankets the land for six months at a time, the South Pole Telescope (SPT) searches the skies for answers to the mysteries of our universe.

This mighty scavenger is about to get a major upgrade — a new camera that will help scientists further understand neutrinos, the ghost-like particles without electric charge that rarely interact with matter.

The 10-meter SPT is the largest telescope ever to make its way to the South Pole. It stands atop a two-mile thick plateau of ice, mapping the cosmic microwave background (CMB), the light left over from the big bang. Astrophysicists use these observations to understand the composition and evolution of the universe, all the way back to the first fraction of a second after the big bang, when scientists believe the universe quickly expanded during a period called inflation.

One of the goals of the SPT is to determine the masses of the neutrinos, which were produced in great abundance soon after the big bang. Though nearly massless, because neutrinos exist in huge numbers, they contribute to the total mass of the universe and affect its expansion. By mapping out the mass density of the universe through measurements of CMB lensing, the bending of light caused by immense objects such as large galaxies, astrophysicists are trying to determine the masses of these elusive particles.

A wafer of detectors for the SPT-3G camera undergoes inspection at Fermilab. Photo: Bradford Benson, University of Chicago

A wafer of detectors for the SPT-3G camera undergoes inspection at Fermilab. Photo: Bradford Benson, University of Chicago

To conduct these extremely precise measurements, scientists are installing a bigger, more sensitive camera on the telescope. This new camera, SPT-3G, will be four times heavier and have a factor of about 10 more detectors than the current camera. Its higher level of sensitivity will allow researchers to make extremely precise measurements of the CMB that will hopefully make it possible to cosmologically detect neutrino mass.

This photo shows an up-close look at a single SPT-3G detector. Photo: Volodymyr Yefremenko, Argonne National Laboratory

This photo shows an up-close look at a single SPT-3G detector. Photo: Volodymyr Yefremenko, Argonne National Laboratory

“In the next several years, we should be able to get to the sensitivity level where we can measure the number of neutrinos and derive their mass, which will tell us how they contribute to the overall density of the universe,” explained Bradford Benson, the head of the CMB Group at Fermilab. “This measurement will also enable even more sensitive constraints on inflation and has the potential to measure the energy scale of the associated physics that caused it.”

SPT-3G is being completed by a collaboration of scientists spanning the DOE national laboratories, including Fermilab and Argonne, and universities including the University of Chicago and University of California, Berkeley. The national laboratories provide the resources needed for the bigger camera and larger detector array while the universities bring years of expertise in CMB research.

“The national labs are getting involved because we need to scale up our infrastructure to support the big experiments the field needs for the next generation of science goals,” Benson said. Fermilab’s main role is the initial construction and assembly of the camera, as well as its integration with the detectors. This upgrade is being supported mainly by the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, which also supports the operations of the experiment at the South Pole.

Once the camera is complete, scientists will bring it to the South Pole, where conditions are optimal for these experiments. The extreme cold prevents the air from holding much water vapor, which can absorb microwave signals, and the sun, another source of microwaves, does not rise between March and September.

The South Pole is accessible only for about three months during the year, starting in November. This fall, about 20 to 30 scientists will head down to the South Pole to assemble the camera on the telescope and make sure everything works before leaving in mid-February. Once installed, scientists will use it to observe the sky over four years.

“For every project I’ve worked on, it’s that beginning — when everyone is so excited not knowing what we’re going to find, then seeing things you’ve been dreaming about start to show up on the computer screen in front of you — that I find really exciting,” said University of Chicago’s John Carlstrom, the principal investigator for the SPT-3G project.

Diana Kwon


This article appeared in Fermilab Today on Nov. 26, 2014

The plastic scintillator extrusion line, shown here, produces detector material for export to experiments around the world. Photo: Reidar Hahn

The plastic scintillator extrusion line, shown here, produces detector material for export to experiments around the world. Photo: Reidar Hahn

Small, clear pellets of polystyrene can do a lot. They can help measure cosmic muons at the Pierre Auger Observatory, search for CP violation at KEK in Japan or observe neutrino oscillation at Fermilab. But in order to do any of these they have to go through Lab 5, located in the Fermilab Village, where the Scintillation Detector Development Group, in collaboration with the Northern Illinois Center for Accelerator and Detector Design (NICADD), manufactures the exclusive source of extruded plastic scintillator.

Like vinyl siding on a house, long thin blocks of plastic scintillator cover the surfaces of certain particle detectors. The plastic absorbs energy from collisions and releases it as measurable flashes of light. Fermilab’s Alan Bross and Anna Pla-Dalmau first partnered with local vendors to develop the concept and produce cost-effective scintillator material for the MINOS neutrino oscillation experiment. Later, with NIU’s Gerald Blazey, they built the in-house facility that has now exported high-quality extruded scintillator to experiments worldwide.

“It was clear that extruded scintillator would have a big impact on large neutrino detectors,” Bross said, “but its widespread application was not foreseen.”

Industrially manufactured polystyrene scintillators can be costly — requiring a labor-intensive process of casting purified materials individually in molds that have to be cleaned constantly. Producing the number of pieces needed for large-scale projects such as MINOS through casting would have been prohibitively expensive.

Extrusion, in contrast, presses melted plastic pellets through a die to create a continuous noodle of scintillator (typically about four centimeters wide by two centimeters tall) at a much lower cost. The first step in the production line mixes into the melted plastic two additives that enhance polystyrene’s natural scintillating property. As the material reaches the die, it receives a white, highly reflective coating that holds in scintillation light. Two cold water tanks respectively bathe and shower the scintillator strip before it is cool enough to handle. A puller controls its speed, and a robotic saw finally cuts it to length. The final product contains either a groove or a hole meant for a wavelength-shifting fiber that captures the scintillation light and sends the signal to electronics in the most useful form possible.

Bross had been working on various aspects of the scintillator cost problem since 1989, and he and Pla-Dalmau successfully extruded experiment-quality plastic scintillator with their vendors just in time to make MINOS a reality. In 2003, NICADD purchased and located at Lab 5 many of the machines needed to form an in-house production line.

“The investment made by Blazey and NICADD opened extruded scintillators to numerous experiments,” Pla-Dalmau said. “Without this contribution from NIU, who knows if this equipment would have ever been available to Fermilab and the rest of the physics community?”

Blazey agreed that collaboration was an important part of the plastic scintillator development.

“Together the two institutions had the capacity to build the resources necessary to develop state-of-the-art scintillator detector elements for numerous experiments inside and outside high-energy physics,” Blazey said. “The two institutions remain strong collaborators.”

Between their other responsibilities at Fermilab, the SDD group continues to study ways to make their scintillator more efficient. One task ahead, according to Bross, is to work modern, glass wavelength-shifting fibers into their final product.

“Incorporation of the fibers into the extrusions has always been a tedious part of the process,” he said. “We would like to change that.”

Troy Rummler


Costumes to make zombie Einstein proud

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014

This article appeared in symmetry on Oct. 21, 2014.

These physics-themed Halloween costume ideas are sure to entertain—and maybe even educate. Terrifying, we know. Image: Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha

These physics-themed Halloween costume ideas are sure to entertain—and maybe even educate. Terrifying, we know. Image: Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha


So you haven’t picked a Halloween costume, and the big night is fast approaching. If you’re looking for something a little funny, a little nerdy and sure to impress fellow physics fans, look no further. We’ve got you covered.

1. Dark energy

This is an active costume, perfect for the party-goer who plans to consume a large quantity of sugar. Suit up in all black or camouflage, then spend your evening squeezing between people and pushing them apart.

Congratulations! You’re dark energy: a mysterious force causing the accelerating expansion of the universe, intriguing in the lab and perplexing on the dance floor.

2. Cosmic inflation

Theory says that a fraction of a second after the big bang, the universe grew exponentially, expanding so that tiny fluctuations were stretched into the seeds of entire galaxies.

But good luck getting that costume through the door.

Instead, take a simple yellow life vest and draw the cosmos on it: stars, planets, asteroids, whatever you fancy. When friends pull on the emergency tab, the universe will grow.

3. Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

Here’s a great excuse to repurpose your topical Breaking Bad costume from last year.

Walter White—aka “Heisenberg”—may have been a chemistry teacher, but the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is straight out of physics. Named after Werner Heisenberg, a German physicist credited with the creation of quantum mechanics, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states that the more accurately you know the position of a particle, the less information you know about its momentum.

Put on Walter White’s signature hat and shades (or his yellow suit and respirator), but then add some uncertainty by pasting Riddler-esque question marks to your outfit.

4. Bad neutrino

A warning upfront: Only the ambitious and downright extroverted should attempt this costume.

Neutrinos are ghostly particles that pass through most matter undetected. In fact, trillions of neutrinos pass through your body every second without your knowledge.

But you aren’t going to go as any old neutrino. Oh no. You’re a bad neutrino—possibly the worst one in the universe—so you run into everything: lampposts, trees, haunted houses and yes, people. Don a simple white sheet and spend the evening interacting with everyone and everything.

5. Your favorite physics experiment

You physics junkies know that there are a lot of experiments with odd acronyms and names that are ripe for Halloween costumes. You can go as ATLAS (experiment at the Large Hadron Collider / character from Greek mythology), DarkSide (dark matter experiment at Gran Sasso National Laboratory / good reason to repurpose your Darth Vader costume), PICASSO (dark matter experiment at SNOLAB / creator of Cubism), MINERvA (Fermilab neutrino experiment / Roman goddess of wisdom), or the Dark Energy Survey (dark energy camera located at the Blanco Telescope in Chile / good opportunity for a pun).

Physics-loving parents can go as explorer Daniel Boone, while the kids go as neutrino experiments MicroBooNE and MiniBooNE. The kids can wear mini fur hats of their own or dress as detector tanks to be filled with candy.

6. Feynman diagram

You might know that a Feynman diagram is a drawing that uses lines and squiggles to represent a particle interaction. But have you ever noticed that they sometimes look like people? Try out this new take on the black outfit/white paint skeleton costume. Bonus points for going as a penguin diagram.

7. Antimatter

Break out the bell-bottoms and poster board. In bold letters, scrawl the words of your choosing: “I hate things!,” “Stuff is awful!,” and “Down with quarks!” will all do nicely. Protest from house to house and declare with pride that you are antimatter. It’s a fair critique: Physicists still aren’t sure why matter dominates the universe when equal amounts of matter and antimatter should have been created in the big bang.

Fortunately, you don’t have to solve this particular puzzle on your quest for candy. Just don’t high five anyone; you might annihilate.

8. Entangled particles

Einstein described quantum entanglement as “spooky action at a distance”—the perfect costume for Halloween. Entangled particles are extremely strange. Measuring one automatically determines the state of the other, instantaneously.

Find someone you are extremely in tune with and dress in opposite colors, like black and white. When no one is observing you, you can relax. But when interacting with people, be sure to coordinate movements. They spin to the left, you spin to the right. They wave with the right hand? You wave with the left. You get the drill.

You can also just wrap yourselves together in a net. No one said quantum entanglement has to be hard.

9. Holographic you(niverse)

The universe may be like a hologram, according to a theory currently being tested at Fermilab’s Holometer experiment. If so, information about spacetime is chunked into 2-D bits that only appear three-dimensional from our perspective.

Help others imagine this bizarre concept by printing out a photo of yourself and taping it to your front. You’ll still technically be 3-D, but that two-dimensional picture of your face will still start some interesting discussions. Perhaps best not to wear this if you have a busy schedule or no desire to discuss the nature of time and space while eating a Snickers.

10. Your favorite particle

There are many ways to dress up as a fundamental particle. Bring a lamp along to trick-or-treat to go as the photon, carrier of light. Hand out cookies to go as the Higgs boson, giver of mass. Spend the evening attaching things to people to go as a gluon.

To branch out beyond the Standard Model of particle physics, go as a supersymmetric particle, or sparticle: Wear a gladiator costume and shout, “I am Sparticle!” whenever someone asks about your costume.

Or grab a partner to become a meson, a particle made of a quark and antiquark. Mesons are typically unstable, so whenever you unlink arms, be sure to decay in a shower of electrons and neutrinos—or candy corn.

Lauren Biron


This Fermilab press release came out on Oct. 6, 2014.

With construction completed, the NOvA experiment has begun its probe into the mysteries of ghostly particles that may hold the key to understanding the universe. Image: Fermilab/Sandbox Studio

With construction completed, the NOvA experiment has begun its probe into the mysteries of ghostly particles that may hold the key to understanding the universe. Image: Fermilab/Sandbox Studio

It’s the most powerful accelerator-based neutrino experiment ever built in the United States, and the longest-distance one in the world. It’s called NOvA, and after nearly five years of construction, scientists are now using the two massive detectors – placed 500 miles apart – to study one of nature’s most elusive subatomic particles.

Scientists believe that a better understanding of neutrinos, one of the most abundant and difficult-to-study particles, may lead to a clearer picture of the origins of matter and the inner workings of the universe. Using the world’s most powerful beam of neutrinos, generated at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago, the NOvA experiment can precisely record the telltale traces of those rare instances when one of these ghostly particles interacts with matter.

Construction on NOvA’s two massive neutrino detectors began in 2009. In September, the Department of Energy officially proclaimed construction of the experiment completed, on schedule and under budget.

“Congratulations to the NOvA collaboration for successfully completing the construction phase of this important and exciting experiment,” said James Siegrist, DOE associate director of science for high energy physics. “With every neutrino interaction recorded, we learn more about these particles and their role in shaping our universe.”

NOvA’s particle detectors were both constructed in the path of the neutrino beam sent from Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, to northern Minnesota. The 300-ton near detector, installed underground at the laboratory, observes the neutrinos as they embark on their near-light-speed journey through the Earth, with no tunnel needed. The 14,000-ton far detector — constructed in Ash River, Minnesota, near the Canadian border – spots those neutrinos after their 500-mile trip and allows scientists to analyze how they change over that long distance.

For the next six years, Fermilab will send tens of thousands of billions of neutrinos every second in a beam aimed at both detectors, and scientists expect to catch only a few each day in the far detector, so rarely do neutrinos interact with matter.

From this data, scientists hope to learn more about how and why neutrinos change between one type and another. The three types, called flavors, are the muon, electron and tau neutrino. Over longer distances, neutrinos can flip between these flavors. NOvA is specifically designed to study muon neutrinos changing into electron neutrinos. Unraveling this mystery may help scientists understand why the universe is composed of matter and why that matter was not annihilated by antimatter after the big bang.

Scientists will also probe the still-unknown masses of the three types of neutrinos in an attempt to determine which is the heaviest.

“Neutrino research is one of the cornerstones of Fermilab’s future and an important part of the worldwide particle physics program,” said Fermilab Director Nigel Lockyer. “We’re proud of the NOvA team for completing the construction of this world-class experiment, and we’re looking forward to seeing the first results in 2015.”

The far detector in Minnesota is believed to be the largest free-standing plastic structure in the world, at 200 feet long, 50 feet high and 50 feet wide. Both detectors are constructed from PVC and filled with a scintillating liquid that gives off light when a neutrino interacts with it. Fiber optic cables transmit that light to a data acquisition system, which creates 3-D pictures of those interactions for scientists to analyze.

The NOvA far detector in Ash River saw its first long-distance neutrinos in November 2013. The far detector is operated by the University of Minnesota under an agreement with Fermilab, and students at the university were employed to manufacture the component parts of both detectors.

“Building the NOvA detectors was a wide-ranging effort that involved hundreds of people in several countries,” said Gary Feldman, co-spokesperson of the NOvA experiment. “To see the construction completed and the operations phase beginning is a victory for all of us and a testament to the hard work of the entire collaboration.”

The NOvA collaboration comprises 208 scientists from 38 institutions in the United States, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Greece, India, Russia and the United Kingdom. The experiment receives funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and other funding agencies.

For more information, visit the experiment’s website: http://www-nova.fnal.gov.

Note: NOvA stands for NuMI Off-Axis Electron Neutrino Appearance. NuMI is itself an acronym, standing for Neutrinos from the Main Injector, Fermilab’s flagship accelerator.

Fermilab is America’s premier national laboratory for particle physics and accelerator research. A U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science laboratory, Fermilab is located near Chicago, Illinois, and operated under contract by the Fermi Research Alliance, LLC. Visit Fermilab’s website at www.fnal.gov and follow us on Twitter at @FermilabToday.

The DOE Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.