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My favourite Nobel prize: weighing up neutrino mass

7 Oct 2019, 19:05 UTC
My favourite Nobel prize: weighing up neutrino mass
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I’ve always been fascinated by neutrinos, those tricksy fundamental particles that abound the universe ( you’ve probably heard it before, but some 65 billion neutrinos pass through a space as small as your fingernail every second!) but are rather hard to detect, as they are electrically neutral, and only interact with matter via gravity and the weak force. First predicted 89 years ago by Wolfgang Pauli as a “desperate remedy” for discrepancies arising in the study of beta decays, these so-called ghostly particles were thought to be impossible to detect. In fact, Pauli himself famously bet a case of champagne that it could never be done, supposedly saying “I have done a terrible thing, I have postulated a particle that cannot be detected ”.
Pauli was happily proven wrong though, when Frederick Reines and Clyde Cowan detected antineutrinos emitted by a nuclear reactor, in 1956 – a feat that earned Reines the 1995 Nobel Prize for Physics. Indeed, neutrino astronomy is a rather Nobel-friendly topic, with the 1988 prize awarded jointly to Leon M. Lederman, Melvin Schwartz and Jack Steinberger “for the neutrino beam method and the demonstration of the doublet structure of the leptons through the discovery of the ...

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