Daily Archives: June 21, 2008

Neutrino Oscillation .. Or Interference?

Neutrinos are constantly being emitted by the sun in prodigious numbers. About 10^14 go through your body each second (maybe more if you supersize yourself like my old buddy Mario did). More technically, anti-neutrinos are created when neutrons decay into a proton + electron + anti-neutrino, and neutrinos are created when protons absorb electrons in the reverse process: proton+electron -> neutron + neutrino. These sorts of things happen to various atoms of the sun, depending on what sort of decay they are subject to, (beta decay or reverse beta decay, respectively), as well as proton-proton collisions that produce a positron a deuteron (PN), and a neutrino. However, not enough neutrinos seem to arrive on earth. This was known quite some time ago, see The Solar Neutrino Problem for the technical details as of 1998.

Neutrino emitted from sun, detected on earth

The explanation for the deficit in neutrinos is now called “neutrino oscillation.” In the theory of neutrino oscillation, these solar neutrinos are “electron neutrinos”, and in their passage to the earth, they change form and become “muon neutrinos” or “tau neutrinos.” For those students who take their physics on faith, this is not a problem. But every now and then someone learns their theory just a little too well and begins to have doubts about how it can be that a particle can transform itself into another particle in vacuum. Yes, neutrino oscillation is a little strange, but it can be explained much more clearly, and kept in context with the rest of particle physics, by analyzing the problem as neutrino interference. This way neutrino oscillation can be described in a way that doesn’t confuse students. And such is the topic of this post.
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