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Neutrinos | Crossing the final frontier

Neutrinos | Crossing the final frontier
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First Published: Mon, Oct 10 2011. 03 23 PM IST

Updated: Mon, Oct 10 2011. 03 23 PM IST
Neutrinos are in a class of their own even in the elusive world of subatomic particles. Not only are they the fastest, neutrinos can pass through anything—from superdense galaxies to imploding stars several times the size of our sun.
Recent findings at the Cern, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, published in Arxiv, an online repository of physics research papers, on 22 September, suggest neutrinos may have surpassed the speed of light, that most inviolate of constants in the Einsteinian universe. Nothing can exceed the speed of light, according to Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. If the Cern results are repeated and validated, and neutrinos are indeed found to travel faster, modern physics may have to be redefined.
This is perhaps the appropriate time to look back at the history of the neutrino and how it may have caught up with the imagination of science fiction masters, who have, in their multifarious universes, conceived of faster-than-light (FTL) travel and what it means for humanity.
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Crossing the final frontier ( PDF )
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1905: Albert Einstein, then a patents clerk in Switzerland, publishes a series of papers in the ‘Annal Der Physik’ that describes the special theory of relativity, postulating that light moved at a constant speed and a particle that travelled at light speed would become infinitely heavy.
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1930 : Wolfgang Pauli, an Austrian theoretical physicist, posits a particle that has no mass and is electrically neutral—the neutrino, which he confusingly called the neutron. This was to explain the phenomenon of beta decay—an unaccounted for loss of energy—when an atom’s nucleus disintegrates into smaller particles.
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1934 : Enrico Fermi, the Italian physicist who formulated the theory of beta decay, coins the term neutrino to differentiate Pauli’s particle from the much heavier, chargeless constituent of the nucleus, the neutron, discovered by James Chadwick in 1932.
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1956: Clyde Cowan, Frederick Reines, F.B. Harrison, H.W. Kruse and A.D. McGuire experimentally confirm the existence of the neutrino.
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1987 : Light from supernova the neutrino. SN-1987A, which exploded 168,000 light years away, reaches Earth. As many as 24 neutrinos are detected on terrestrial machines astronomy is born.
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2000 : Scientists confirm the existence of at least three kinds of neutrinos—electron, muon and tau. When neutrinos blitz through space, they often morph into these forms. It is thought there might be eight types of neutrinos.
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2006: Neutrinos are first found to travel faster than light. A set of neutrino detectors off Chicago measures the speed to be 1.00005 times, or slightly higher than, the speed of light. However, further analysis suggests the uncertainty in measurement was too great to be sure.
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2010 : A group of physicists working at the Large Hadron Collider at Cern and Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy provides experimental evidence for the first time that neutrinos indeed have mass.
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2011 : The same scientists at Cern present—with unprecedented accuracy— evidence of neutrinos that travelled at 1.0000248 times the speed of light, a result that needs further validation.
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FTL travel
Warp drive | One of the most well-known instances of fictional FTL flight is in ‘Star Trek’. Gene Roddenberry’s creation caught the popular imagination in 1966 by presenting a drive that could warp space and time, and achieve FTL travel in multiples, enabling the starship Enterprise “to boldly go where no man has gone before”.
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Hyperdrive | In the 1940s, when a world war was being fought with propeller-driven aircraft, Issac Asimov audaciously postulated a hyperdrive—developed by robots with positronic circuits, no less—that lets space ships jump interstellar distances instantaneously, laying the foundation of a spectacular universe that still draws readers in droves.
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Stargate | Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin conceived the Stargate, a sequence of rings made of the fictional superconductor “naqadah” that creates a so-called wormhole—a tunnel in the space-time continuum that connects two cosmic points and is the site of much adventure. It spawned a blockbuster film in 1994 and led to a 17-year run on television starting in 1997.
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Infinite improbability drive | Douglas Adams flung his protagonists out into deep space from a ship in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979), and then invented the infinite improbability drive to rescue them, a means of travel where travellers are never sure where they’ll end up or even what species they’ll be when they get there; therefore it was important to dress accordingly.
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Foldspace and prescie nt navigation | The universe of Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) included a powerful guild of navigators, who not only enter so-called foldspace to move faster than light, but also use the melange drug for limited prescience to correctly navigate the lines of probability in that space-time dimension—in a marriage of machine and biological technology—and thus dictate interstellar trade and troop movements.
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Graphic by Uttam Sharma / Mint
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First Published: Mon, Oct 10 2011. 03 23 PM IST
More Topics: Light | Neutrinos | Cern | FTL | Albert Einstein |