Big news! An experiment called MiniBooNE at Fermilab in Chicago has found more evidence that neutrinos are not acting as the Standard Model says they should:
• The MiniBooNE Collaboration, Observation of a significant excess of electron-like events in the MiniBooNE short-baseline neutrino experiment.
In brief, the experiment creates a beam of muon neutrinos (or antineutrinos—they can do either one). Then they check, with a detector 541 meters away, to see if any of these particles have turned into electron neutrinos (or antineutrinos). They’ve been doing this since 2002, and they’ve found a small tendency for this to happen.
This seems to confirm findings of the Liquid Scintillator Neutrino Detector or ‘LSND’ at Los Alamos, which did a similar experiment in the 1990s. People in the MiniBooNE collaboration claim that if you take both experiments into account, the results have a statistical significance of 6.1 σ.
This means that if the Standard Model is correct and there’s no experimental error or other mistake, the chance of seeing what these experiments saw is about 1 in 1,000,000,000.
There are 3 known kinds of neutrinos: electron, muon and tau neutrinos. Neutrinos of any kind are already known to turn into those of other kinds: these are called neutrino oscillations, and they were first discovered in the 1960’s, when it was found that 1/3 as many electron neutrinos were coming from the Sun as expected.
At the time this was a big surprise, because people thought neutrinos were massless, moved at the speed of light, and thus didn’t experience the passage of time. Back then, the Standard Model looked like this:
The neutrinos stood out as weird in two ways: we thought they were massless, and we thought they only come in a left-handed form—meaning roughly that they spin clockwise around the axis they’re moving along.
People did a bunch of experiments and wound up changing the Standard Model. Now we know neutrinos have nonzero mass. Their masses, and also neutrino oscillations, are described using a 3×3 matrix called the lepton mixing matrix. This is not a wacky idea: in fact, quarks are described using a similar 3×3 matrix called the quark mixing matrix. So, the current-day Standard Model is more symmetrical than the earlier version: leptons are more like quarks.
There is, however, still a big difference! We haven’t seen right-handed neutrinos.
MiniBooNE and LSND are seeing muon neutrinos turn into electron neutrinos much faster than the Standard Model theory of neutrino oscillations predicts. There seems to be no way to adjust the parameters of the lepton mixing matrix to fit the data from all the other experiments people have done, and also the MiniBooNE–LSND data. If this is really true, we need a new theory of physics.
And this is where things get interesting.
The most conservative change to the Standard Model would be to add three right-handed neutrinos to go along with the three left-handed ones. This would not be an ugly ad hoc trick: it would make the Standard Model more symmetrical, by making leptons even more like quarks.
If we do this in the most beautiful way—making leptons as similar to quarks as we can get away with, given their obvious differences—the three new right-handed neutrinos will be ‘sterile’. This means that they will interact only with the Higgs boson and gravity: not electromagnetism, the weak force or the strong force. This is great, because it would mean there’s a darned good reason we haven’t seen them yet!
Neutrinos are already very hard to detect, since they don’t interact with electromagnetism or the strong force. They only interact with the Higgs boson (that’s what creates their mass, and oscillations), gravity (because they have energy), and the weak force (which is how we create and detect them). A ‘sterile’ neutrino—one that also didn’t interact with the weak force—would be truly elusive!
In practice, the main way to detect sterile neutrinos would be via oscillations. We could create an ordinary neutrino, and it might turn into a sterile neutrino, and then back into an ordinary neutrino. This would create new kinds of oscillations.
And indeed, MiniBooNE and LSND seem to be seeing new oscillations, much more rapid than those predicted by the Standard Model and our usual best estimate of the lepton mixing matrix.
So, people are getting excited! We may have found sterile neutrinos.
There’s a lot more to say. For example, the SO(10) grand unified theory predicts right-handed neutrinos in a very beautiful way, so I’m curious about what the new data implies about that. There are also questions about whether a sterile neutrino could explain dark matter… or what limits astronomical observations place on the properties of sterile neutrinos. One should also wonder about the possibility of experimental error!
I would enjoy questions that probe deeper into this subject, since they might force me to study and learn more. Right now I have to go to Joshua Tree! But I’ll come back and answer your questions tomorrow morning.