Book Review: Neutrino Hunters, by Ray Jayawardhana, Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2013

I just finished reading the book Neutrino Hunters, by Ray Jayawardhana, the fourth popular science book of the author.

The neutrinos are electrically neutral, weakly interacting elementary subatomic particles with half-integer spin, as Wikipedia teaches us. Also, they are the last best hope of ambitious young physicists for a breakthrough, for an opening to some new physics, outside of the Standard model.

Ray Jay, who is a professor of astronomy at University of Toronto, wrote a popular physics book, nearly at the level of an introductory undergraduate physics class, but with a historic flavor. The story begins with present-day efforts of the scientists at the IceCube detector, located near the South Pole, to detect neutrinos, but it quickly jumps back in time to the beginning of the twentieth century to follow the pursuits of Einstein, Schroedinger, Heisemberg, Dirak and the likes, to revolutionize our understanding of the nature.

To me, the historic aspect of the book was as successful as the Dreadnought and Castles of Steal books by Robert Massie, for example. Although the main stage it taken by the particles themselves, the paragraphs about Pauli, Pontecorvo, Bahcall and the others are interesting because they portray the best of the human struggle for knowledge. This made me think about the strange atmosphere that reigns in the academia – the attitudes of the scientists span between playfulness and hubris, the research is driven by motives ranging from curiosity to ego satisfaction – just like outside the academic environment. And yet, the academia fosters collaborations and team work more than any other environment, as many of my friends who went to the industry testify. The book has captured some of that, in addition with the story of the neutrino.

Back to the neutrino. The existence of this particle was proposed in the 1930 by Wolfgang Pauli to solve a crisis in the physics of the time – it appeared that the conservation laws were broken during the beta decay, unless a new particle was born. Pauli called it a neutron, except two years later Chadwick discovered another, much heavier particle with no electrical charge – the one that we now call neutron – and a new name was needed. Enrico Fermi came to the rescue and the name neutrino was born.

The book follows in detail the long saga of the neutrino detection. It wasn’t until 1956 until Reines and his collaborators detected neutrinos from a nuclear reactor. Davies detected the solar neutrinos in 1968, the first supernova born neutrinos were detected in 1987, and 2011 brought the detection of the geoneutrinos, born from radioactive decay inside the Earth.

The last two chapters cover the most recent events in the neutrino studies, and even go as far as describing some speculations about practical applications applications of the neutrinos, including oil prospecting and even communication. I suspect these chapters are likely to make the largest impact on the reader, because they differ from most physics texts – by construction the physics textbooks, especially high school ones, that are likely to represent the background of many of Ray Jay’s readers, present our knowledge as something complete and self-consistent. Let’s leave this deception to the conscience of their authors. Our knowledge of the world is not complete, and often the current state of affairs is contradictory – as the long-though deficiency of solar neutrinos demonstrated. Ray Jay makes this an important point in his books, describing how the scientific process works, how the science copes and resolves such contradictions, and what are the main unanswered questions, faced by neutrino hunters: what is the mass of the neutrino, are there any other neutrino flavors, is the neutrino its own antiparticle?

I definitely recommend the Neutrino Hunters.


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Filed under astronomy, Book Review, book reviews, астрономия, наука, history, ревюта на книги

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