Have you noticed how the Higgs boson has been hogging the limelight lately? For a measly little invisible item, whose significance cannot be explained without appealing to thorny concepts of quantum field theory, it has done pretty well for itself. The struggling starlets of Hollywood could learn a thing or two about the dark art of self-promotion from this boson.
First, its elusiveness “sparked the greatest hunt in science,” as the subtitle of one popular book put it. Then came all the hoopla over its actual discovery. Or should I say discoveries? Because those clever, well-meaning folks at the CERN laboratory outside Geneva proclaimed their finding of the particle not once but twice. First in 2012, on the Fourth of July no less, they told the world that their supergigantic — and awesomely expensive — atom smasher had found tentative evidence of the Higgs. Eight months later, they made a second announcement, this time with more data in hand, to confirm that they had nabbed the beast for real. Just recently, there was yet more fanfare when two of the grandees who had predicted the particle’s existence back in 1964 shared a Nobel Prize for their insight.
In fact, ever since another Nobel-winning genius, Leon Lederman, branded it the “God particle” some 20 years ago, the Higgs boson has captured the public imagination and dominated the media coverage of physics. Some consider Professor Lederman’s moniker a brilliant P.R. move for physics, while others denounce it as a terrible gaffe that confuses people and cheapens a solemn scientific enterprise. Either way, it has been effective. Nobody ever talks about the fascinating lives of other subatomic particles on “Fox and Friends.”
Sure, the story of Higgs is a compelling one. The jaw-dropping $9 billion price tag of the machine built to chase it is enough to command our attention. Plus, there is the serene, wise man at the center of this epic saga: the octogenarian Peter Higgs, finally vindicated after waiting patiently for decades. Professor Higgs was seen to shed a tear of joy at a news conference announcing the discovery, adding tenderness to the triumphant moment and tugging ever so gently at our heartstrings. For reporters looking for a human-interest angle to this complicated scientific brouhaha, that was pure gold.
But I say enough is enough. It is time to give another particle a chance.
And have I got a terrific candidate for you! It moves in mysterious ways, passing right through wood, walls and even our bodies, with nary a bump. It morphs among three forms, like a cosmic chameleon evading capture. It brings us news from the sun’s scorching heart and from the spectacular death throes of monstrous stars. It could tell us why antimatter is so rare in the universe and illuminate the inner workings of our own planet. Someday, it may even help expose rogue nuclear reactors and secret bomb tests, thus promoting world peace. Most important, we might not be here without it.
WHAT is this magical particle, you ask? It is none other than the ghostly neutrino.
O.K., I admit that I am biased, having just written a book about it. But believe me, no other particle comes close to matching the incredibly colorful and quirky personality of the neutrino, or promises to reveal as much about a mind-boggling array of natural phenomena, both subatomic and cosmic. As one researcher told me, “Whenever anything cool happens in the universe, neutrinos are usually involved.” Besides, John Updike considered it worthy of celebrating in a delightful poem in The New Yorker, and on “The Big Bang Theory,” Sheldon Cooper’s idol Professor Proton chose Gino the Neutrino as his beloved puppet sidekick.
Granted, the neutrino does come with some baggage. Remember how it made headlines two years ago for possibly traveling faster than light? Back then, the prospects of time travel and breaking Einstein’s speed limit provided plenty of fodder for rampant speculation and a few bad jokes. In the end, the whole affair turned out to be much ado about a faulty cable. I maintain it is unfair to hold the poor little neutrino responsible for that commotion.
Generally speaking, the neutrino tends to shun the limelight. Actually, it is pathologically shy and hardly ever interacts with other particles. That makes it tough to pin down.
Thankfully, today’s neutrino hunters have a formidable arsenal at their disposal, including newfangled observatories buried deep underground or in the Antarctic ice. Neutrino chasing, once an esoteric sideline, has turned into one of the hottest occupations for the discerning nerd. More eager young ones will surely clamor for entry into the Promised Land now that the magazine Physics World has declared the recent detection of cosmic neutrinos to be the No. 1 physics breakthrough of the year.
Drum roll, please. The neutrino is ready to take center stage. But don’t blink: It zips by at nearly the speed of light.
Ray Jayawardhana, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Toronto, is the author of Neutrino Hunters: The Thrilling Chase for a Ghostly Particle to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe.