What’s the Matter, Neutrinos?

New evidence of muon neutrinos turning into electron neutrinos could pave the way for spotting differences between matter and antimatter. That may not mean much to most people but scientists think it might be a big clue in the search for why matter is everywhere and antimatter is not.

Physicists believe matter and antimatter should behave the same way to preserve the symmetry outlined in the standard model of physics. But matter dominated over antimatter following the Big Bang.

Here are the basics on neutrinos. They are tiny, invisible particles that pass through our bodies millions of times a day. They leave no trace because they are so fast and so light, traveling constantly through space all the time. This characteristic also makes them very difficult for physicists to detect.

Generally, a neutrino detector has to be constructed in an underground bunker where cosmic rays can’t penetrate. One such experiment was just barely underway in Japan when the big 9.0 earthquake disrupted the island nation and brought an abrupt halt to the big physics experiment.

There are three types of neutrinos theoretical physicists have determined but direct observation of Muon neutrinos, electron neutrinos and tau neutrinos has been fleeting to say the least.

The Japanese T2K experiment, which was pushing neutrinos from one coast of Japan to another may have captured the first evidence of the three neutrinos changing into one another en route.

In physics that’s a big deal. And now that physicists have observed the three types of flip-flopping neutrinos scientists just need to study how often this happens so they can apply the same experiments to anti-neutrinos.

The Japanese experiment should be back online by the end of the year.

“People sometimes think that scientific discoveries are like light switches that click from ‘off’ to ‘on’, but in reality it goes from ‘maybe’ to ‘probably’ to ‘almost certainly’ as you get more data. Right now, we are somewhere between ‘probably’ and ‘almost certainly’.” — Dave Wark, Science and Technology Facilities Council in the United Kingdom and Imperial College London and head of the UK Group at the T2K experiment

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