"The Most Ridiculous Particle"

"Something unknown is doing we don't know what." -- Arthur Eddington

"The universe can't exist the way it is without the neutrinos, but they seem to be in their own separate universe, and we're trying to actually make contact with that otherworldly universe of neutrinos. And as a physicist, even though I understand it mathematically and I understand it intellectually, it still hits me in the gut that there is something here around surrounding me almost like some kind of spirit or god that I can't touch, but I can measure it. I can make a measurement. It's like measuring the spirit world or something like that." -- Peter Gorham

Near the end of Werner Herzog's superb film Encounters at the End of the World (2007), the viewer is introduced to Dr. Peter Gorham, a physicist at the University of Hawaii who was then leading the neutrino detection project in Antarctica. Dr. Gorham said he and his team are trying to be the "first scientific group to detect the highest energy neutrinos in the universe." This led to a brief exchange between Herzog and Dr. Gorham.

Herzog: Yeah, but Dr. Gorham, what exactly is a neutrino?

Gorham: The neutrino...is the most ridiculous particle you could imagine. A billion neutrinos went through my nose as we were talking. A trillion, a trillion of them went through my nose just now, and they did nothing to me. They pass through all of the matter around us continually, in a huge, huge blast of particles that does nothing at all. They're like...they almost exist in a separate universe, but we know, as physicists, we can measure them, we can make precision predictions and measurements. They exist, but we can't get our hands on them, because they seem to just exist in another place, and yet without neutrinos, the beginning of the universe would not have worked. We would not have the matter that we have today, because you couldn't create the elements without the neutrinos. In the very, very earliest few seconds of the big bang, the neutrinos were the dominant particle, and they actually determined much of the kinetics of the production of the elements we know. So, the universe can't exist the way it is without the neutrinos, but they seem to be in their own separate universe, and we're trying to actually make contact with that otherworldly universe of neutrinos. And as a physicist, even though I understand it mathematically and I understand it intellectually, it still hits me in the gut that there is something here around surrounding me almost like some kind of spirit or god that I can't touch, but I can measure it. I can make a measurement. It's like measuring the spirit world or something like that. You can go out and touch these things.

Herzog: (Voiceover: Not suprisingly, we found...[an] incantation in Hawaiian language on the side of his detector. It was as if spirits had to be invoked.) What would we see if we could film the impact of a neutrino?

Gorham: What you would see is, you would see a lightning bolt about ten meters long, about that thick [makes a gesture indicating a fraction of an inch], and it would blast at the speed of light over this 10 meter distance, and you would see the most beautiful blue light your eyes have ever seen...the entire impulse of radio waves is up and down in probably one one-hundred billionth of a second. It just goes 'bang' and it's gone, and that's what we're looking for.

(April 3, 2012)

 

- Return Home -