Archive for March 20th, 2012

March 20, 2012

Neutrino oscillation measured

The possibility that neutrinos might travel a smidgen faster than light has been widely publicized. It seems to have already been disproven, but there’s something else that neutrinos do that’s no longer in doubt – and almost as interesting.

Neutrinos come in three “flavors“: electron, muon, and tau (denoted by νe, νμ, ντ.) These three types are parallel with and correspond to the three flavors of better-known leptons: electron, muon, and tau. “Flavor” is a facetious term used by particle physicists to refer the fact that leptons (as well as neutrinos and quarks) come in three distinct types with different masses, but no other distinguishing characteristics. And nobody really knows why different flavors exist, or why there are (or seem to be) exactly three “generations” of them.

But what neutrinos do that is no longer disputable, and which neither other leptons nor quarks do, is to spontaneously change their flavor – undergo “oscillation” – on the fly. More precisely, neutrino flavor is a quantum mechanical property, which has no definite value until it’s measured. And the probability of observing one definite flavor or another varies over time. Not only can neutrinos have flavors different from what they had when created, but even the probability of what will be measured fluctuates.

Neutrino oscillation is a very interesting phenomenon, but rather technical. See this article for a more detailed presentation.