Why is there something instead of nothing?

June 12, 2012

I admit it: I do not really understand what a neutrino is, much less a quark, muon, lepton, antimatter, or for that matter, any of the fundamental concepts of high-energy, particle physics. But I deeply admire the people who do, including the dedicated scientists who inhabit Fermilab, a sprawling prairie campus west of Chicago that is home to some of the world’s most advanced physics experiments.

The Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, as it’s formally known, is funded by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy. On its 6,800-acre site, thousands of physicists, engineers and computer scientists use colossal detectors, colliders, and particle beams to find the universe’s most infinitesimal elements. Recently, as part of an annual gathering of university research communicators, I had the opportunity to tour parts of Fermilab and meet some of the researchers (along with more than a few butterflies and bison) there.

Among the scientists is Patricia Vahle, assistant professor of physics at William and Mary, who shared our lunch table during my recent Fermilab visit. When she’s not enduring pestering questions from me and my fellow university research communicators, Vahle spends a lot of her time at Fermilab studying the behavior of neutrinos as part of the NOvA experiment, a 180-member collaboration made up of scientists and engineers from 28 institutions.

Mark Messier, associate professor of physics in the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University Bloomington, is co-spokesperson for the NOvA experiment. In this truly helpful video explaining the basics of the experiment, Messier observes that “neutrinos are everywhere.” They are the most abundant particle in the universe, he says, so much so that “16 million neutrinos from the sun pass through your thumbnail every second of every day and every night.”

Just let that sink in for a 16-million-neutrino second.

Essentially, neturinos are shape-shifters, scientists have found. They oscillate between different particle personalities, or “flavors,” as Messier calls them. NOvA exists, in part, to try to identify these different flavors more precisely, especially the rare muon neutrino-to-electron neutrino oscillation. NOvA’s three-pronged exploration of the patterns of neutrino behavior, Messier says, may help to answer some basic questions about the evolution of the early universe.

“It’s likely that NOvA will be able to solve the question of the neutrino mass ordering, a question that no other neutrino experiment in operation or under construction can address,” Messier noted in an October 2011 article about the experiment in Symmetry magazine. (Symmetry is the excellent research magazine about particle physics published by Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.)

Everything about NOvA and the numerous other Fermilab experiments is big, from the size of the equipment to the research questions the scientists pursue. The NOvA detector weights 33 million pounds, is the size of a football field, and is located in far northern Minnesota, 500 miles from the neutrino beam that will emanate from Fermilab. The first run of the experiment, which begins in 2013, will last six years.

And as for the questions, as Messier puts it, the ultimate question that NOvA will help answer is this: Why is there something instead of nothing?

I may not understand the physics behind that question, but I certainly look forward to the answer.

Lauren Bryant, IU Bloomington Office of the Vice Provost for Research

Leave a Comment