What Have Neutrinos Done for You?

Well, one answer is that they helped you get out of bed this morning. Neutrinos are an essential part of the first step in the fusion process that helps to ignite the sun. So, as the days of spring brighten and you go out to enjoy the sunshine, you can thank a neutrino for every ray of light.

It is hardly surprising, then, that these little particles have inspired poets, as well as scientists. And we mean real poets – like John Updike. The poem in the photo gallery is from Updike’s 1963 book Telephone Poles. This book also has poems inspired by supernovae and the thermodynamics of hot chocolate; our Neutrino Group highly recommends it!

The work on practical applications of neutrino research has just begun, and history teaches us that it takes many years to put any fundamental discovery to use. It took from 600 BC, when Thales of Miletus learned to accumulate an electric charge by rubbing fur and amber together, to the 1600’s before the electric generator was invented. But it took less than 100 years to go from the theory of general relativity to GPS. That’s a big improvement! Let’s see how quickly we can come up with something for neutrinos!

Our group works on the application “Neutrinos for Peace.” This is the development of neutrinos as tools for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Neutrinos are copiously produced from the decay of fission products in nuclear reactors, and the energies of neutrinos carry information about the material that produced them. Crucially, neutrinos are impossible to contain within a reactor. Like the “dustmaids” of Updike’s poem, they penetrate all walls and zip off into the environment, including into detectors located “outside of the fence” of the reactor. Because of this, they carry the potential for a non-intrusive assay of the materials in the reactor. Thus, neutrino detectors, similar to those of the Double Chooz experiment, could be a valuable tool for the IAEA.

The Neutrino Hunters at MIT:

Lindley Winslow received her Ph.D. from Berkeley working on the KamLAND neutrino experiment in Japan, and is now a postdoc at MIT.   She has deep roots here:  her grandfather, also Lindley Winslow, was MIT class of 1948.

Christina Ignarra was an undergraduate at New York University before coming to graduate school at MIT.   Her thesis will be on the MiniBooNE and MicroBooNE experiments at Fermilab in Illinois.  She is also head of the Physics Graduate Student Council.

Janet Conrad received her M.Sc. from Oxford, her Ph.D. from Harvard, and went on to a postdoc and subsequent faculty position at Columbia University.  She moved to MIT four years ago and has established a thriving neutrino group here.

Other Members of Conrad’s Group include graduate students,  Ben Jones, Chris Jones, and Kazu Terao; a postdoc, Teppei Katori; Pappalardo Fellow, Josh Spitz; and UROPs, Tess Smidt and Christie Chiu.

But wait, there’s more!  While Professor Conrad’s group focuses on man-made sources of neutrinos, MIT’s neutrino group led by Professor Joe Formaggio studies natural sources, including neutrinos from the sun, tritium decay, and from the big bang.  Formaggio’s neutrino group includes graduate students,  John Barrett and Daniel Furse;  a postdoc, Noah Oblath; and MLK Fellow, Sophia Cisneros and UROPs  David Chester, Devyn Rysewyk, and Theodora Kunicki.

Maybe you can’t see neutrinos, but you can see us.  We are in Building 26 at MIT.   Feel free to contact us if you would like to visit or learn more.

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Elizabeth Chadis

Assistant Dean for Development
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e: ECHADIS@MIT.EDU