At the turn of the century, physicists grappled with a persistent and quite nefarious problem: beta decay in radioactive materials seemed to be missing energy, as in the experimental results did not match up with theory. This upset the laws of conservation of energy, and left many a physicists concerned as to the laws validity or if they were missing a crucial piece to the problem. To solve this conundrum, a young physicist named Wolfgang Pauli devised the neutrino – a ghostly particle that rarely reacted with matter but whose energy would fit the missing pieces in the beta decay puzzle. It is there that the search for the neutrino began.
Ray Jayawardhana leads us on this journey through history, exploring the people who sought after this nebulous particle and the scientific theories the existence of the neutrino affected. This tiny particle turned out to be a shape-changing chameleon, and ironically enough, it holds the key to understanding many of the more confounding mysteries of astrophysics: the processes inside our sun and other stars, how supernovas play out during a massive star’s dying throes, clues as to how matter outpaced antimatter at the start of our universe, glimpses into the core of our own planet, a portrait of nuclear reactions in reactors and atomic bombs, and even what the universe was like in the first few minutes of its existence. Neutrinos open up a whole new realm of particle physics because of their odd ability to morph into other flavors of neutrinos over time and how they are born in some of the most energetic places in the universe. Because they rarely react with matter, thousands fly through us and the earth every second of every day, and it takes quite a bit of ingenuity and engineering to create the necessary experiments that have detected them and continue to do so. To avoid contamination from everyday devices and cosmic rays, the experiments need to be housed either deep underground or deep in the ice of Antarctica. It is through these detectors that scientists are able to look into parts of the universe that were previously inaccessible; neutrinos open the doors to a better understanding of our universe.
The author does an excellent job of showing us the human faces behind this search for knowledge and a better understanding of our universe. The science within it is very well explained, written for the lay person, with no math whatsoever. Jayawardhana demystifies particle physics, and explains it in easy to understand terms, great for any lay person, especially those who have never taken a physics course. The journey is a astronomical detective tale full of twists and turns, failures and triumphs, and the colorful characters that inhabit this journey to understand some of the most bizarre particles in our universe. As a physics major, I felt that the discussion of the science was a bit underwhelming, but for someone with no physics background at all, it was more than enough to paint a clear and colorful picture of the physics behind neutrinos and the hunt for them.
Definitely recommend it to anyone interested in reading about history and science.